The period of densest settlement in the land of Israel before the 1950s was the Byzantine Period, from the 4th to the 7th century CE (AD). At this time the territory was governed by Roman emperors based in Byzantium (Constantinople, now Istanbul). Archaeological remains from that time period are found throughout Israel. And yet, it is a time period that is often little studied. Of course, it is not as closely alligned to the world of the Bible. It is also not viewed as academically respectable as the Bronze Ages or the Neolithic. Because we have many written records, it partly falls into the realm of history – and to many archaeologists that makes it less interesting. After all, we have to take into account the vagaries of history and can’t rely so much on our theories.
The Byzantine Period is not my focus in Near Eastern Archaeology, but I’m fascinated by it nevertheless. Somehow the many finds have left an impression on me. And then there’s no denying the beauty that still remains: the intricate mosaic floors; the arches of abandoned buildings; the well-known stone carvings (from columbaria to the facades of Petra). I want to explore this time period a bit in the near future and will share some of what I come across on this blog.
To give us an idea of the society at the time, I’ll look at an article written by Moshe Fisher, Itamar Taxel and David Amit called Rural Settlement in the Vicinity of Yavneh in the Byzantine Period: A Religio-Archaeological Perspective ( 2008 BASOR 350:7-35). It is largely based on an archaeological survey of the area around Yavne, a town north-east of Ashdod, several kilometres inland from the Mediterranean. In the rural area around Yavne several Byzantine settlements have been identified. From these sites several artifacts have been recovered, which indicate the religious affilication of at least some of their inhabitants. At one of the sites two inscribed basse of marble columns were found. They are in Aramaic and identify the sponsor of the column to a synagogue. At another site several finds indicate a public religious building. It is, however, the fragment of a marble menorah that indicates that this building was a synagogue. At a further site several tombstones also suggest a Jewish community.
Other sites have clearly Christian symbols. At one site a limestone bowl with crosses incised on the handle was found. A mosaic floor with a Christian inscription was discovered at another site. But not just traces of Christians and Jews were found. One village has a Samaritan inscription. We forget how relatively wide-spread the Samaritan religion, based on the Pentateuch, was in that time. The archaeologists surveyed many other sites, but no clear finds associated with religious identity were recovered.
Yavne itself had a mixed population. During Roman times it was a key Jewish center, but was more Christian in the Byzantine Period. However, there are signs of Samaritan population and it cannot be discounted that Jews continued to live there. The port town of Yavne-Yam also had a mixed population, with both ancient documents and archaeological finds indicating Christian, Jewish and Samaritan presence. From the finds so far it becomes clear that there was considerable religious diversity in Byzantine south-western Palestine. The authors suggest that while people of different faiths lived together in towns and cities, the rural settlements, be they villages, estates or monastic institutions, were usually associated with one religion. Clearly, religious identity was important to these people, and yet they were able to live together, if at times somewhat uneasily.