Photo Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Antiquities Authority
Archaeologist Daria Eladjem points to a ship drawing in the excavation.

A Byzantine-period church with wall art displaying ships was discovered in an Israel Antiquities Authority excavation in the Northern Negev. The church was unearthed south of the Bedouin city of Rahat in the Negev deserts, during work on a new neighborhood.

A ship model discovered in the excavation south of Rahat. / Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

As you may already know, Israel is so saturated with antiquities that by law, before work begins on a new construction project, the area must first be examined thoroughly by archaeologists. And so, the IAA has been conducting excavations south of Rahat for several years. The discovered church will be presented to the public for the first time at the Rahat Conference on Tuesday, June 6, which will display the history of the city and the region as it has been uncovered in the excavations.

Ship drawings discovered in the Rahat excavation. / Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

The artwork is a greeting from Christian pilgrims who arrived by ship at the Gaza port, according to IAA excavation directors Oren Shmueli, Dr. Elena Kogan-Zehavi, and Dr. Noa David Michael, and Prof. Deborah Cvikel of the University of Haifa’s Department of Maritime Civilizations.

Ship drawings discovered in the Rahat excavation. / Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

The excavated site tells the story of the settlement in the northern Negev at the end of the Byzantine period and the beginning of the early Islamic period. Pilgrims visited the church and left their mark in drawings of a ship on its walls. The ship is an old Christian symbol, but in this case, it may be a true graphic depiction of real ships in which the pilgrims traveled to the Holy Land.

Israel Antiquities Authority excavation in Rahat- aerial view. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

The site of the ancient church with the ship drawings is adjacent to an ancient Roman road that led from the Mediterranean coastal port of Gaza to the Negev Capital Beer Sheva. The pilgrims began their journey in the Holy Land along ancient Roman roads leading to sacred sites such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilea, and the monasteries in the Negev Hills and Sinai.

The remains of the church discovered south of Rahat. / Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

The dig’s archaeologists say it is reasonable to assume that their first stop after leaving their ships at the Gaza port was at the church south of Rahat. “This site lies only a half-day’s walk from the port,” the point out.

The excavation site of the Israel Antiquities Authority in Rahat. / Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

According to Prof. Cvikel, “One of the ships drawn on the church walls is depicted in a line drawing, but it may be discerned that its bow is slightly pointed and that there are oars on both sides of the vessel. This may be an aerial depiction of the ship, though it seems the artist was attempting a three-dimensional drawing. It may be that the lines below it portray the path beaten by the oars in the water. Images of ships and crosses were left by visiting Christian pilgrims as witnesses to their visit have also been found in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher.”

Another drawing depicts a two-masted ship. The main mast has no sail but has a small flag in its upper section. The foremast is slightly raked toward the bow and bears a sail known as an artemon. The exacting detail indicates the artist’s familiarity with maritime life.

“Since the drawing was found upside-down, it seems the person placing the stone during construction was either unaware that it bore a drawing, or did not care,” says Prof. Cvikel.

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