Photo Credit: Gilad Stern / Israel Antiquities Authority
Soldiers and Israel Antiquities Authority staff carrying out the excavation and the conservation.

Over the past month, dozens of IDF soldiers uncovered a 1500-year-old nuns’ abbey at Horbat Hani, in the low foothills east of Shoham in central Israel, 15 miles east of downtown Tel Aviv.

Soldiers and Israel Antiquities Authority staff carrying out the excavation and the conservation. / Gilad Stern / Israel Antiquities Authority

It began after a small area of the site, which is located within a military training zone was accidentally damaged by the army. The consequent recovery project, a collaboration of the IDF educational corps and the Israel Antiquities Authority, was crowned ”The Nature Defense Forces Project: Officers Take Responsibility for the Environment.”

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The Byzantine convent was first excavated twenty years ago by Dr. Uzi Dahari and Dr. Yehiel Zelinger of the IAA and was later covered up to protect it. It is now visible again, thanks to the project which was carried out by the soldiers.

Conservation work on the mosaic pavement. / Gilad Stern / Israel Antiquities Authority

According to Issy Kornfeld, Director of the excavation on behalf of the IAA, “recently, a small part of the ancient ecclesiastical site was damaged in the course of army activities in the military zone. The IAA, together with the Nature Defense Forces program, initiated an educational project to clean up and reopen this impressive site.”

Decorative elements in the mosaic pavement. / Gilad Stern / Israel Antiquities Authority

Kornfeld noted that “in the original excavation, two buildings were uncovered, one of which was a church paved with a colorful mosaic depicting faunal and vegetal scenes; an entrance hall; the nuns’ dormitories; hermit cells; a tower with rooms; and a crypt––an underground burial complex. The other building included a kitchen, a dining hall, and an inn to house pilgrims.”

Aerial view of the church complex in the military training zone. / Idan Yunish / Israel Antiquities Authority

There was evidence that the convent preserved a tradition related to women. IAA archaeologist Dr. Eitan Klein proposed that the convent at Horbat Hani marked the burial place of the biblical Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel.

Decorative elements in the mosaic pavement. / Gilad Stern / Israel Antiquities Authority

The original excavation also uncovered a few female skeletons, possibly of women who sought to be buried in proximity to the sanctified figure of Hannah.

Guy Saly, director of the IDF Nature Defense Forces Project, said: ”The excavation is an example of the army taking responsibility for the environment and carrying out a meaningful activity. The soldiers and the offices enjoyed the hands-on archaeological work, and we hope that the joint activities to protect the archaeological sites will continue in the future.”

Aerial view of the mosaic. / Idan Yunish / Israel Antiquities Authority

IAA Director Eli Eskosido said “the joint IAA initiative with the IDF Nature Defense Forces Project creates an opportunity for every soldier and army officer. The adoption of archaeological sites on army bases and in military training zones, and the creation of archaeological exhibitions on army bases, further consolidate the strong connection between the defense of the State of Israel and the protection of the ancient sites and our cultural heritage.”

The church mosaic is now partially visible, and can be visited with advance permission from the IDF Central Command: 02-5305042 (From the US: 011-972-2-5305042).

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