Archaeologists from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology recently conducted preliminary excavations at the ancient site of Hyrcania in the northern Judean Desert. This excavation followed an increase in activity by antiquities looters.
Hyrcania is situated about 17 km southeast of Jerusalem and 8 km southwest of Qumran and the Dead Sea. It was originally established by the Hasmonean dynasty in the late 2nd or early 1st century BCE, named after John Hyrcanus, and later expanded by Herod the Great. Some of the famous desert fortresses of this era include Masada and Herodium.
After Herod’s death in 4 BCE, Hyrcania lost its significance and was abandoned for nearly 500 years. In 492 CE, a Christian monastery called Kastellion was founded among its ruins by the monk Holy Sabbas, reflecting the monastic movement in the Judean Desert during the Byzantine period. The monastery continued to function even after the Islamic conquest of Byzantine Palestine in 635 CE but seems to have been abandoned by the early 9th century. The site is also known as Khirbet el-Mird in Arabic.
While there had been sporadic investigations of the site in the past, no systematic academic archaeological excavation had taken place until now, primarily due to logistical challenges. Recently, a team led by Dr. Oren Gutfeld and Michal Haber from Hebrew University spent four weeks at the site, uncovering significant evidence of its history.
During this initial “pilot” season, their focus was on two key areas. In the southeastern corner of the summit, they uncovered a portion of the upper fortification line dating back to the Second Temple period, around the late 2nd or 1st century BCE. This discovery revealed architectural elements reminiscent of Herodium, possibly indicating shared engineering and planning expertise.
In the northeast, the team unearthed an elongated hall with piers, likely part of the monastery’s lower level. The original construction date of this area has yet to be determined.
During the excavation, they found a substantial stone with red-painted text and a simple cross at the top, written in Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament. Expert epigraphist Dr. Avner Ecker from Bar-Ilan University was called in to decipher the inscription.
Dr. Ecker successfully identified the readable text as a paraphrase of Psalms 86: 1–2, known as “a prayer of David.” While the original lines are “Hear me, Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. Guard my life, for I am faithful to you,” the Hyrcania version reads:
† Ἰ(η)σοῦ Χ(ριστ)ὲ
φύλαξ<ο>ν με ὅτι
[π]έν[ης] <εἰ>μὶ <ἐ>γώ
† “Jesus Christ, guard me, for I am poor and needy.”
Dr. Ecker explained, “This psalm holds a special place in the Masoretic text as a designated prayer and is notably one of the most frequently recited psalms in Christian liturgy. Thus, the monk drew a graffito of a cross onto the wall, accompanied by a prayer with which he was very familiar.”
Based on the epigraphic style, he dated the inscription to the first half of the 6th century CE. Dr. Ecker also noted some grammatical errors typical of Byzantine Palestine, suggesting that the priest who wrote it likely had a Semitic language as their native tongue.
A few days later, another inscription was discovered nearby and is currently undergoing analysis. Haber emphasized the significance of these findings, stating, “These recent discoveries are truly exceptional,” especially considering their orderly and documented context, unlike previous papyrus fragments of uncertain origin.
In addition to the inscriptions, a child-sized gold ring adorned with a turquoise stone was found, featuring an Arabic Kufic script inscription “مَا شَاءَ ٱللَّٰهُ” (Mashallah), translating to “God has willed it.” Dr. Nitzan Amitai-Preiss, an expert in Early Arabic epigraphy, dated the script style to the Umayyad caliphate of the 7th and 8th centuries CE. She also noted that two of the three words in the inscription were mirror images, suggesting the ring may have been used as a seal.
The origin of the turquoise stone itself adds intrigue, likely sourced from the newly conquered territory of the Sassanid Empire (modern-day Iran) by the expanding Umayyad caliphate. The path this artifact took to reach Hyrcania and the identity of its wearer remain mysteries.
The team is eagerly awaiting the next excavation season in early 2024, in collaboration with Carson-Newman University and American Veterans Archaeological Recovery.
Benny Har-Even, Staff Officer for Archaeology-Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria, expressed the commitment to preserve and develop archaeological sites in the region, working with leading Israeli academic institutions.
Dr. Stephen Humphreys, CEO of AVAR, highlighted their mission to provide veterans with fieldwork opportunities and training. He mentioned the teamwork and challenges faced during the excavation at Hyrcania.
Haber and Gutfeld acknowledged the ongoing threat of antiquities looting in the area and stressed the importance of academic excavations to stay ahead of these challenges, particularly in sensitive sites like Hyrcania.
Source: Hebrew University of Jerusalem