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Find sheds light on reli­gious re­la­tions in Byzan­tine era

Jerusalem Post - - FRONT PAGE - • By TA­MARA ZIEVE

A de­lib­er­ately-con­cealed sil­ver cross in­laid on the ob­verse of a Byzan­tine weight was dis­cov­ered at Hip­pos (Sus­sita) in north­ern Is­rael dur­ing Univer­sity of Haifa ex­ca­va­tions at the site, the univer­sity an­nounced Wed­nes­day.

The brass weight weighs ap­prox­i­mately 160 grams and ar­chae­ol­o­gists con­sider the find to be “ground­break­ing ev­i­dence of the del­i­cate re­la­tions be­tween the Chris­tian res­i­dents of the city and its new Mus­lim rulers,” be­gin­ning in the mid-sev­enth cen­tury CE.

“More or less by chance, we dis­cov­ered a stain cov­er­ing the cross on the ob­verse of the weight,” said Dr. Michael Eisen­berg of the Zin­man In­sti­tute of Ar­chae­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Haifa, who is the head of the Hip­pos-Sus­sita ex­ca­va­tions. “At first we were con­vinced that it was just dirt, but in fact the stain was made de­lib­er­ately to con­ceal a cross, a Chris­tian reli­gious sym­bol used by the Chris­tian pop­u­la­tion, so that they could con­tinue to use the weight in their con­tacts with the new Mus­lim rulers. This is the first time that we have found a weight fea­tur­ing this type of con­cealed el­e­ment.”

Sus­sita Na­tional Park, which is man­aged by the Na­ture and Parks Au­thor­ity, has been ex­ca­vated since 2000 by a del­e­ga­tion from the In­sti­tute of Ar­chae­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Haifa. Hip­pos was founded in the sec­ond cen­tury CE, and later be­came a ma­jor city dur­ing the Ro­man and Byzan­tine pe­ri­ods. The city was de­mol­ished in a strong earth­quake in 749, dur­ing the pe­riod when the land was ruled by the first Is­lamic caliphate of the Umayyad ad­min­is­tra­tion, which oc­cu­pied the coun­try in the mid-sev­enth cen­tury.

Us­ing a metal de­tec­tor, Dr. Bradley Bowlin dis­cov­ered the small brass weight dat­ing back to the Byzan­tine pe­riod in the north­west church com­pound at the site. Sim­i­lar weights have been found in the past, and the ob­ject was passed on to Dr. Alexan­der Ier­molin, di­rec­tor of the Con­ser­va­tion Lab­o­ra­tory at Haifa Univer­sity’s Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal In­sti­tute.

A few weeks later, Ier­molin con­tacted Eisen­berg with the news that a strange dark stain on the ob­verse of the weight had been con­ceal­ing a cross in­laid in sil­ver; the other dec­o­ra­tive el­e­ments on the weight were not con­cealed in this man­ner. “At first we thought this was ran­dom pol­lu­tion. We in­tended to sim­ply re­move the dark stain and then con­tinue the preser­va­tion process. But some­thing smelled strange to us, so we de­cided to take time out,” Eisen­berg re­called.

In­stead of sim­ply removing the stain, they for­warded the weight to Prof. Sariel Shalev at the Univer­sity of Haifa, who is an ex­pert in an­cient met­al­lurgy. After pre­par­ing a chem­i­cal pro­file of the weight and the stain, Shalev dis­cov­ered that while the weight is made of brass, the stain was made from a metal­lic paste con­tain­ing lead and tin.

“The melt­ing tem­per­a­ture of the paste was around one-third the melt­ing tem­per­a­ture of the other com­po­nents of the weight. Since peo­ple dur­ing this pe­riod had a strong mas­tery of crafts­man­ship, it was clear that the stain had been made de­lib­er­ately. More­over, small sec­tions of the sil­ver cross had been chis­eled out in or­der to ensure that the weight of the ob­ject re­mained un­changed. In short, there was no chance that the stain was co­in­ci­den­tal,” Shalev con­cluded.

The re­searchers then con­sid­ered why some­one went to the trou­ble of con­ceal­ing the cross, given that nu­mer­ous his­tor­i­cal tes­ti­monies in­di­cate that at least dur­ing the early stages of Mus­lim rule, the new au­thor­i­ties showed a tol­er­ant at­ti­tude to­ward the Chris­tian pop­u­la­tion. At Hip­pos, for in­stance, at least seven churches have been dis­cov­ered, most of which con­tin­ued to op­er­ate dur­ing this pe­riod, with­out any signs of de­struc­tion.

Eisen­berg says that while the Mus­lim rulers al­lowed the Chris­tian res­i­dents to con­tinue their reli­gious wor­ship, their tol­er­ance had its lim­its.

“The cross was de­lib­er­ately cov­ered by church of­fi­cials dur­ing the early Is­lamic pe­riod so that they could con­tinue to use the weight, to­gether with other weights in the of­fi­cial city weights set kept at the cen­tral church in Hip­pos, as well as in their con­tacts with the Mus­lim ad­min­is­tra­tion in Tiberias. This si­t­u­a­tion of­fers a pre­cise il­lus­tra­tion of the di­vid­ing line dur­ing this pe­riod of regime change be­tween con­sid­er­able reli­gious and cul­tural free­dom and the point when a Mus­lim of­fi­cial might be forced to hold an ob­ject dis­play­ing an overtly Chris­tian em­blem,” Eisen­berg said.

The weight is on dis­play at the Hecht Mu­seum at the Univer­sity of Haifa, as part of an ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled “Be­fore the Earth Shook: The An­cient City of Hip­pos-Sus­sita Emerges.”

(Univer­sity of Haifa)

HIP­POS, OVER­LOOK­ING the Sea of Galilee, is the site where a Byzan­tine brass weight bear­ing a pre­vi­ously con­cealed sil­ver cross (insert) was dis­cov­ered.

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