The Christian faith has shaped culture for centuries, but many try to deny its importance.
However, archaeologists continue to uncover sites that proclaim the importance of Christ and the role of His people on earth.
One such discovery involves “The Church of the Glorious Martyr,” a recent find in an area close to Jerusalem.
The site was first uncovered by Jerusalem’s Construction and Housing Ministry during construction work in Ramat Beit Shemesh, an area 18 miles from Jerusalem.
Before long, an archaeological team from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Bible Lands Museum of Jerusalem started work on the site, uncovering more beautiful details each day.
According to an inscription on the stone walls, the church was constructed under the supervision of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Justinian is historically known as a ruler who legally enforced Christianity across the Roman Empire, and this discovery confirms that idea.
The church, which was laid out as a basilica with a central hallway and an aisle on each side, was beautifully decorated with colorful mosaics of birds and plants as well as bright frescoes on the walls.
Over the course of the excavation, the team also discovered the most complete collection of stained glass windows ever located in Israel. The symbols and designs on these windows can provide important insights into the practice of Christianity during the Byzantine era of Roman emperors.
The archaeological team also uncovered a small chapel attached to the church. The chapel was likely added to the main church building during the reign of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine, who attempted to be more religiously neutral than his predecessor, Justinian.
Tiberius funded the construction of this chapel, however, according to the inscriptions on the chapel walls. This was a surprising find, as it was rare for Tiberius to personally provide construction funds during his time as emperor.
“Numerous written sources indicate that the empire funded churches in the Land of Israel, but in the archaeological study, very few inscriptions such as the one found in Beit Shemesh are known,” commented Benjamin Storchan, one of the archaeologists working on the site.
This finding indicates that Tiberius may have been more deeply influenced by and involved in the Christian community than was previously believed.
The central part of the church was a crypt known as the final resting place of “the glorious martyr.” It’s still unclear who this martyr was, but, “the exceptional opulence of the structure and its inscriptions indicate that this person was an important figure [in Christianity],” said Storchan.
“In the Byzantine period, locations traditionally associated with major events of the Old and New Testaments, including sites linked to saints and martyrs, were venerated as holy places,” noted a representative of the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.
“Churches containing martyrs’ relics became important destinations for Christian pilgrims.”
The Church of the Glorious Martyr was undoubtedly a common stop for Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem in Byzantine times, even when the influence of Islam began to increase across the Roman Empire.
“With its ornate design and prominent situation near the main road to Jerusalem, the highlight of a pilgrim’s journey, the Church of the Glorious Martyr evidently drew many believers hoping to receive blessing within,” added the museum representative.
With two separate staircases leading to and from the crypt beneath the church, the church was clearly designed to accommodate many visitors en route to the Holy City of Jerusalem.
The discovery of this sixth-century church and the crypt beneath suggests that the influence of Christianity lasted longer in the Roman Empire than historians have previously believed.
Many historians previously believed that forced conversions to Islam stopped the Christian movement in its tracks in the seventh century, but the artifacts and inscriptions located at The Church of the Glorious Martyr suggest that Christians still had a strong presence until a gradual decline in the ninth century.
Even as the reach of Islam spread across the empire, Christians still continued to remember and celebrate the martyrs of past generations.
Artifacts from The Church of the Glorious Martyr are now on display at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. Click here to view some of the discoveries!
May this archaeological find—and others—encourage us to remember the influence and legacy of the Christians who came before us.