Archaeological Find Reveals Secret: Early Muslim Holy Land Rule Not So Tolerant of Christianity

July 12, 2018

3 min read

A recent archaeological discovery contained a secret which, when revealed, graphically illustrated the difficult position of Christians living under early Muslim rule in Israel in the seventh century CE.

A brass weight weighing approximately 160 grams was discovered in Sussita during excavations led by the University of Haifa. Upon closer inspection, the archaeologists discovered the artifact contained a surprise.

“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, to The Jerusalem Post. “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.”

The site overlooking the Sea of Galilee was a Greco-Roman city named Hippos. Hippos was founded in the second century CE, and later became a major conurbation during the Roman and Byzantine periods. The city declined after the Muslim conquest of the region in the seventh century and was abandoned in 749 CE after an earthquake. It is believed to have been referred to several times in the New Testament, though not by name.

The weight was found by Dr. Bradley Bowlin using a metal detector. This type of brass weight has been found before by archaeologists and Dr. Bowlin passed it on to Dr. Alexander Lermolin, director of the Conservation Laboratory at Haifa University’s Archaeological Institute. Dr. Lermolin discovered that underneath the dark stain on the obverse of the weight was a cross inlaid in silver. There were no other stains on the weight and the other decorative elements on the weight were not concealed.

“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 said.

The stain was discovered to be a metallic paste made of lead and tin applied to the brass weight.

“The melting temperature of the paste was around one-third the melting temperature of the other components of the weight,” Professor Sariel Shalev, an expert in metallurgy, said to the JPost. “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 to ensure that the weight of the object remained unchanged. In short, there was no chance that the stain was coincidental.”

Silver cross on marble column from partial reconstruction of church apse at the Sussita exhibition at the Hecht Museum. (Credit: Avi Kochavi)

There have been at least seven ancient churches discovered at Hippos, and historical accounts claim that Muslim rule arising at the time, was tolerant of the Christian population. The new find implies that the Muslim rulers were clearly not as tolerant as previously assumed.

“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.”

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