Archaeologists Discover 1,500-Year-Old Church

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Israeli archaeologists have uncovered an ancient church building they believe may mark the burial site of the Hebrew prophet Zechariah.

The remains of the 1,500-year-old church is located in the Judean Hills, about 20 miles from Jerusalem. Archaeologists discovered it after Palestinian looters, searching for treasures to sell, damaged the surface of the site.

"In order to prevent, save, and salvage whatever archaeological finds were there, the Israel Antiquities Authority decided to start excavating and the results were fantastic," said archaeologist Shai Bar-Tura.

Bar-Tura said what's special about the church is how well it has been preserved.

"The best way to see this is by looking at the mosaic floor, which is a magnificent mosaic floor," he added. "There are intricate geometrical designs. We see wonderful wild scenes with wild animals, fish swimming in a pond. There's another spectacular scene of a lion hunting a gazelle."

Marble columns imported from Turkey lined the central hall of the Basilica.

"We're trying to figure out why such a significant building was built here," Bar-Tura said.

One theory goes all the way back to Bible times.

One part of the church was built over an ancient tomb. Archaeologists said it might have been the tomb of the prophet Zechariah and the church was placed there as a memorial.

Pieces of the church building are the only things that remain. However, archaeologists said Jewish villages existed there during the Second Temple Period and hundreds of years later during the Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans.

Jews of that day built a system of tunnels and caves under the hill in which to live and as a means of escape. Experts have speculated that an earthquake in the 8th century may have destroyed the church.

"One of the most wonderful things about archaeology and especially about sites like these is the visitor coming to this church uncovered now basically walks into the same building and sees the same things that Christian worshipers would have seen 1,500 years ago," Bar-Tura said.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has planned to eventually open the site to the public. In the meantime, it will be covered up with sand and layers of fabric in order to preserve it from further decay.

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Julie Stahl

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