Antiquities of Jericho: the Byzantine period

Historians and archaeologists of the Middle East know Jericho very well as the location of Tell es-Sultan, a key Neolithic and Bronze Age site; palaces of the Hasmonean dynasty and Herod the Great in Wadi Qelt; and an early Islamic palace complex of Umayyad Caliph. However, the Byzantine period of this city has been practically excluded from research, though Jericho played and still plays an important part in the early Christian narrative, especially, development of the pilgrim movement; from the 4th century to the present it has been at the intersection of the roads running along the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, and a point of departure to Jerusalem.

Discovery of the Byzantine Jericho site is credited to Russian science. In the 1870–1880s orientalist, archimandrite Antonin (Kapustin) discovered fragments of polychromic mosaics of the 5th–7th centuries on the land plots that he had acquired (to carry out excavations) near the village Er Riha that had fallen into decay; besides the mosaics, other finds of the same period were uncovered. The excavations were continued by N.P. Kondakov’s Near Eastern expedition (1891) (excavations were led by Ya. Smirnov) and the staff members of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, but after 1917 research on land plots owned by Russia came to a halt.

The continuation of exploration was made possible after Russia again came into possession of one of its land plots (Madrasa as-Vasskuma was transferred by the Palestine government to Russia in 1995), where construction of the Museum and Park complex began. To continue research and ensure preservation of cultural heritage, the Institute signed a contract with the Administrative Department of the President of the Russian Federation to establish the Jericho expedition that was granted an intergovernmental status (the heads of the expedition are Leonid Belyaev, Russia; Hamdan Taha,  PNA).

Over four years of excavations (2010–2013) a part of the architectural complex of a rich villa or a pilgrim refuge-monastery typical for Byzantine Palestine and an adjacent site used to process agricultural produce and make pottery were explored.

Frequent finds (such as coins and ceramics) suggest that the site complexes reached their peak in the period between the 5th and 7th centuries; the earlier finds (2nd century BC– 4th century AD) are few in number (the Roman period; single finds of coins of the Late Hellenism).

Most coins were struck during the reigns of emperors from Anastasius I (491–518) to Heraclius (610–641). A small (54 pcs) treasure hoard of bronze folles (40 nummi coins; the latest coin dates to 593/594) put in circulation a century before the period following the end of the 490s down to the mid-590s. The finds include two coin weights (counterpoises) for coin adjustment, namely, a weight for one gold nummus and a weight for three gold nummi (0.5 ounce = 13.6 g); the weight values are inlaid. All this is an indication of a high level of business activity in 5th–7th centuries.

Coins of later periods do not occur in such great quantities but their presence demonstrates that life did not come to a halt with the advent of Islam. Ample evidence of this are vessels of transitional forms (the 8th–10th centuries) and examples of beautifully painted vessels of the 13th–14th centuries typical for the age of crusades and Mamluk sultans.

The main bulk of ceramics, however, comprises earlier transport ware and household vessels of the Byzantine period with rare finds of red-glazed North-African cups and plates with typical stamps (a bird, a bull, and palmetto). The site where the ceramic workshop was located is abundant with amphorae finds and rejects (including a dried jar that was not fired and fragments of scorified vessels).

The architectural complex includes well-furnished premises with large rooms and galleries surrounding an inner courtyard. The construction equipment is noted for being simple, columns and their details are not marble and are made from local limestone; capitals of the columns are later modifications of the Ionic order; the bases are both classical and extremely schematic (boulder foundations; stonework made from large cut blocks). But the rooms are ornate and comfortable, with tanks connected to the channels for water, which is necessary in the dry Judean Desert; the floors are laid with mosaic of three types, i.e. simple white, black and white, and multicolored mosaics made of tesserae.

A large mosaic (3.6 х 3.6 m, around 15,000 tesserae, 7–8 main colors) covering the center of one of the great halls is the most striking find. The pattern of the mosaic consists of intricately intertwined circles, colored marble imitations, plaits and floral (Christian?) motifs associated with wishing prosperity such as rosettes, a pomegranate flower, vines with bunches of grapes (a traditional symbol of sacrifice and rebirth included in a great number of iconographic compositions).

Church items such as a bronze incense-burner hanging on a chain with crosses; a ceremonial bronze lamp, cruse lamps with Christian inscriptions (end of the 5th – first half of the 7th centuries); a small bronze cross (7th century) indicate that the building, in all likelihood, was used for religious purposes. Two ceramic furnaces, several tandoors and large pits for firing reject were unearthed in the production area.

The 2010–2013 excavations in Jericho were first efforts of Russian archaeologists in Palestine over the past century, they were very promising for future research. Besides, the Jericho Expedition committed itself to prepare and implement the concept of the first museum exposition that was successfully opened on January 19, 2011. The opening ceremony was attended by the President of Russia and the President of Palestine.

The Russian Museum and Park Complex has already become a platform for joint long-term work of Russian, Palestinian and Western scholars; first international conferences took place in the Complex in 2014–2015.

L.A. Belyaev,

N.A. Makarov,

A.N. Voroshilov,

L.A. Golofast

Digital Version of the Booklet