About 1500 years before the first archaeologist took up his spade to look for the past in the ground, Byzantines started identifying historic sites. Bibles in hand, they set out to look for remnants and listen to stories about the locations of events from their religious past. They had the same need that we have today – to connect to stories through physical spaces.
As a caveat, of course in the Byzantine time archaeology was not scientifically rigorous – nothing was scientifically rigorous to modern standards back then! But if we are looking for the earliest traditions of people who were genuinely committed to doing the best they could, then Byzantine building cannot be ignored.
Sometimes Byzantine churches are found in out of the way places. Then you have to ask, “What is the story with this place?”
Around Jerusalem, we hear much of the Gihon spring in the City of David. One reason Jerusalem was located on the ridge of the City of David is because the Gihon spring is the most prolific in the region. But what about the second largest spring? It also would have been an important landmark in antiquity. At the site of this spring, Ein Hanya, recent archaeological work has found an impressive array of finds.
Ein Hanya is located outside of Jerusalem to the west, near today’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital. Archaeological excavations were directed by Irina Zilberbod of the Israel Antiquities Authority and uncovered finds dated back to the First Temple Period. It is thought that at that time this was a royal garden, similar to those found at Ramat Rachel, Samaria, Megiddo, and Hatzor based on the column capitals which were found here. (These capitals are featured today on the 5 NIS coin.) Also found here was one of the oldest coins ever discovered in the Jerusalem area from the 4th century BCE. This rare silver coin, a drachma, was minted in Ashdod by Greek rulers between 420 and 390 BCE.
But perhaps the most significant and impressive finding was a large Byzantine era system of pools at the foot of a church from the 4th – 6th century CE. Although the use of these pools is unclear, the extensive set of buildings, including a nymphaeum, roofed colonnades and residential wings suggest this as an important site.
The Byzantines did not build impressive complexes simply because of their proximity to water, there had to be a story behind the building of the church.
In Acts 8, there is an account which happens in this area to the west of Jerusalem.
“Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) – Acts 8:26
The road through the wilderness could definitely have been the road on which Ein Hanya is located. As he is on this road, Philip has an encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch in a chariot. Philip joins him for the ride and along the way explains biblical passages as referring to Jesus’ teaching. The Ethiopian eunuch is persuaded of their veracity when suddenly, we are returned to the physical surroundings.
“As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water and Philip baptized him.” – Acts 8:36-38
This event is seen as a key stage in Christianity’s spread. Perhaps this Byzantine church was built commemorating it? We cannot know for certain at this stage as no identifying marks have been found to date. But Christianity’s influence has been preserved here; part of the site continues to be owned by the Armenian church and it is a focus of religious ceremonies for both the Armenian and Ethiopian churches. Finding the ancient church helps us connect the story to this place.