Mosaic History in Palestine

Mosaic History in Palestine

Jerusalem with its many holy places probably had the highest concentration of mosaic-covered churches but very few of them survived the subsequent waves of destructions.


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The present remains do not do justice to the original richness of the city. The most important is the so-called "Armenian Mosaic" which was discovered in 1894 near the Damascus Gate. It depicts a vine with many branches and grape clusters, which springs from a vase. Populating the vine's branches are peacocks, ducks, storks, pigeons, an eagle, a partridge, and a parrot in a cage. The inscription reads: "For the memory and salvation of all those Armenians whose name the Lord knows." The symbolism of the mosaic indicates that the room was used to remember the dead as a mortuary chapel. In the Dominus Flevit Church on Mount Olives a 7th century Byzantine chapel was unearthed in 1955. The floor is richly decorated with intersecting circles and pictures of fruit, leaves, flowers, and fish. A Greek inscription mentions Simon, who "decorated this place of prayer in honor of Jesus". In the nearby Church of the Agony (built originally in the last decades of the 4th century) a colorful mosaic floor was discovered in 1920 which follows a geometric design. Fragments of a similar geometric mosaic floor were preserved in the Basilica of St. Stephen (outside the Damascus Gate) which was built by Empress Aelia Eudocia in the first half of the 5th century.

On the outskirts of Jerusalem in the Monastery of the Cross a section of the elaborate 5th century mosaic floor survived, incorporating pictures of peacocks, plants and geometric patterns. Early Byzantine mosaics were preserved in the Church of John the Baptist in Ein Kerem, the Beit Jimal Monastery (in the 5th century the Church of the Tomb of St. Stephen, mosaics discovered in 1916), the Church of the Seat of Mary (Kathisma) (from the 5-8th centuries, floral and geometric designs, cornucopiae, discovered in 1992-7) and the lower church at Shepherds' Field (or Beit Sahour, the Greek Orthodox site, a floor including crosses, and therefore must predate 427). An exceptionally well preserved, carpet-like mosaic floor was uncovered in 1949 in Bethany, the early Byzantine church of the Lazarium which was built between 333 and 390. Because of its purely geometrical pattern, the church floor is to be grouped with other mosaics of the time in Palestine and neighboring areas, especially the Constantinian mosaics in the central nave at Bethlehem. A second church was built above the older one during the 6th century with another more simple geometric mosaic floor. In 2003 during the construction works of the Israeli security barrier in Abu Dis workers damaged the remains of a Byzantine monastery which was subsequently excavated. The monastery church had an elaborate mosaic floor decorated with images of animals including a deer and an octopus.

Ruins of three Byzantine churches were discovered in the village of Beit Jibrin (ancient Eleutheropolis). One was decorated with an exquisite mosaic depicting the four seasons but it was defaced during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The other church north of the wadi was excavated in 1941-1942. Its floor mosaic have octagons with representations of birds, quadrupeds, and scenes from the story of Jonah depicting the prophet being thrown out of the boat or resting. In nearby Emmaus Nicopolis two Byzantine basilicas were built in the 6-7th centuries above the house of Cleopas, which was venerated by Christians as the place of the breaking of bread by the risen Christ. Both were decorated with mosaic floors. In the northern nave of the southern basilica, a nilotic mosaic portrayed birds, animals and flowers. In Abu Gosh a 5th century mosaic floor was preserved in the modern Church of the Ark of the Covenant.


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