'Miracle' in Jerusalem testifies to the devotion of Christian pilgrims 1,500 years ago

Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities AuthorityAn important ancient inscription has been unearthed near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem

A 'miracle' inscription has been unearthed in Jerusalem that testifies to the devotion of Christian pilgrims just 550 years after the birth of Christ.

The Greek inscription mentioning the Byzantine emperor Justinian was exposed on a mosaic floor near the Damascus Gate.

It was found in a room believed to have been used as a hostel for pilgrims and has 'surprised and excited' the Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists who discovered it.

A 1,500 year old mosaic floor with its Greek inscription was discovered this summer during building work for communications infrastructures.

David Gellman, excavation director, 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.'

The Damascus Gate served for hundreds of years as the main northern entrance to Jerusalem.

Gellman said: '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.' 

Dr Leah Di Segni, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, deciphered the inscription which read: '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.'

Di Segni said: '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. 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.'

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 was one of the most colorful and charismatic rulers of antiquity. Under his reign, the 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. Remains of the 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 said: '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.'

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