A 1,500-year-old mosaic floor, with a Greek inscription, was discovered this summer following groundwork for Partner communications cable infrastructures near the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem.
David Gellman, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority said, “The fact that the inscription survived is an archaeological miracle. The excavation in a relatively small area, exposed ancient remains that were severely damaged by infrastructure groundwork over the last few decades. We were about to close the excavation, when all of a sudden, a corner of the mosaic inscription peeked out between the pipes and cables. Amazingly, it had not been damaged. Every archaeologist dreams of finding an inscription in their excavations, especially one so well-preserved and almost entirely intact.”
Dr. Leah Di Segni, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the expert on ancient Greek inscriptions, deciphered the inscription. The inscription reads, “In the time of our most pious emperor Flavius Justinian, also this entire building Constantine the most God-loving priest and abbot, established and raised, in the 14th indiction.” According to Di Segni, “This inscription commemorates the founding of the building by Constantine, the priest. The inscription names the emperor Flavius Justinian. It seems that the building was used as a hostel for pilgrims.” Di Segni added, “‘Indiction’ is an ancient method of counting years, for taxation purposes. Based on historical sources, the mosaic can be dated to the year 550/551 AD.”
According to Gellman, “The Damascus Gate served for hundreds of years as the main northern entrance to Jerusalem. Knowing that, it is no surprise that this area is rich with archaeological remains. In the Byzantine period, with the emergence of Christianity, churches, monasteries and hostels for pilgrims were built in the area north of the gate, and the area became one of the most important and active areas of the city.”
The two people mentioned in the inscription are well-known from both ancient historical sources and archaeological finds. The emperor Flavius Justinian was one the most important rulers of the Byzantine period, and one of the most colorful and charismatic rulers of antiquity. Under his reign, the eastern Roman empire was at its strongest, and its conversion to Christianity was completed. In the year 543 AD he established a large church in Jerusalem, dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus, known as The Nea Church. This was the largest church built in Jerusalem and one of the largest in the entire empire. The abbot of the church was Constantine, whose name appears in the inscription discovered recently near the Damascus gate. Remains of this church were partially excavated in 1970, in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, even then sparking interest among archaeologists and scholars of Jerusalem, throughout Israel and across the globe. This excavation was a part of the Jewish quarter excavations carried out immediately following the Six Day War in 1967.
According to Di Segni, the inscription found near the Damascus gate is fairly similar to an inscription found in the vaults of the Nea Church, currently exhibited in the Israel museum. The same two people are mentioned in the inscription, the emperor Justinian and the abbot Constantine. Di Segni adds, “This new inscription helps us understand Justinian’s building projects in Jerusalem, especially the Nea Church. The rare combination of archaeological finds and historical sources, woven together, is incredible to witness, and they throw important light on Jerusalem’s past.”
The new but ancient inscription was removed from its site by the conservation experts of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and is being treated in the IAA ‘s mosaic workshop in Jerusalem.