Archaeologists have discovered a 1500 year old ancient Byzantine church near the Holy Land, dedicated to a mysterious “glorious martyr.”

On Wednesday, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) showcased the discovery after nearly three years of excavation. The site was discovered 18 miles west of Jerusalem near the city of Beit Shemesh during the construction of a new neighborhood.

Its construction began during the 6th century under the Emperor Justinian and was later expanded with the addition of a chapel from a donation by Tiberius II between 574 and 582. The complex spans over a third of an acre featuring a large courtyard and an elaborately decorated basilica church adorned with intricate mosaics and colorful frescoes built over fully intact crypts.

“Both the basilica and the courtyard are massive for the period – larger than most Byzantine churches found in the Holy Land. Only a few churches in Israel have been discovered with fully intact crypts. The crypt was accessed via parallel staircases – one leading down into the chamber, the other leading back up into the prayer hall. This enabled large groups of Christian pilgrims to visit the place.”

IAA Director of Excavation Benjamin Storchan said its design is known as “imperial church building,” and would have been a major pilgrimage site for those journeying to the Holy Land as the Byzantine empire took “part in ensuring the development of pilgrimage routes.” One inscription credits Justinian and Tiberius II for their involvement.

“Numerous written sources attest to imperial funding for churches in Israel, however, little is known from archaeological evidence such as dedicatory inscriptions like the one found in Beit Shemesh. Imperial involvement in the building’s expansion is evoked by the image of a large eagle with outspread wings – the symbol of the Byzantine Empire – which appears in one of the mosaics.”

Another inscription in the courtyard says the church is dedicated to a”glorious martyr,” the identity of which is unknown.

“The martyr’s identity is not known, but the exceptional opulence of the structure and its inscriptions indicate that this person was an important figure. It doesn’t make sense to build such a monumental structure at the bottom of a valley, unless it marks the place of the death or the subsequent burial of the martyr.”

The church was abandoned but left intact in the 9th century, most likely the result of the reduced Christian pilgrimage during Muslim conquest.

“We found the entrances to the church sealed with large stones, meaning the last people who were here knew they had to leave but they had time to close the doors, and they were hoping to come back.”

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