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The geographical and chronological contexts of the Mamilla burial cave match the detailed references to the place of massacre and entombment, and it seems highly probable that this was one of the locations in which the massacred Christians of Jerusalem were buried.

By Gideon Avni
Director, Excavations and Surveys Department
Israel Antiquities Authority

The Persian conquest of Palestine in 614 CE is described in historical sources as a most violent military raid that dramatically affected the political and administrative stability of Byzantine Palestine, involving large scale damage to churches and a mass killing of the local Christian population. Common view has it that the conquest marked a turning point in the history of the Near East and was one of the causes for the rapid Early Islamic conquests, twenty years later. Although the Persian domination - lasting only 14 years (614-628), was a very brief episode in the long historical sequence of Palestine, it was believed that the devastating effects of the conquest changed the urban and rural landscape of the country for many years to come.

Archaeological studies generally adopted this clear-cut narrative and attributed the decay and destruction of buildings and sites in many parts of Palestine to the consequences of the Persian conquest. Many scholars saw this conquest as the event that accelerated the process of decline and disappearance of a thousand years of Hellenic and Roman architectural tradition in the eastern Mediterranean.

A central part in the historical references to the Persian conquest is dedicated to the detailed description of the conquest of Jerusalem, the massacre of its Christian population and the destruction of many of its churches and monasteries.

The most detailed description of the atrocities of the conquest and the devastation of the Holy City was provided by Antiochius Strategius, a monk from the monastery of Mar Saba. A section of his description specifies the numbers of dead who were brought to burial by a certain Thomas in thirty-five different locations around Jerusalem. Some of these places can be identified in sites around the walls of Jerusalem.

While the traditional archaeological discussions unequivocally accepted the historical narrative of violence and destruction, a careful survey of the available archaeological finds from Jerusalem reveals no clear evidence of destruction layers that can be associated with the Persian conquest. In many sites, evidence for destruction is ambiguous, and sometimes burned layers were associated with the Persian conquest without firm ceramic or chronological basis.

The large number of excavated sites in and around Jerusalem, together with the detailed historical descriptions on the conquest and massacre of the Christian population, provides an unparalleled opportunity to compare the historical narrative with the archaeological findings and to evaluate the impacts of a dramatic, but short-term historical event. How can a military raid be reflected in the archaeological finds, and to what extent it is reflected in long-term processes? Did the conquest cause devastating destruction that affected Jerusalem for many years to come, or was it a short-term military raid, bearing no significant effects on the city in the long run? Can archaeology provide an answer to the reliability of the historical sources, or were these descriptions flawed and manipulated by Christian writers, who wanted to emphasize the destructive nature of the Persian conquest far beyond its actual scope?

A careful evaluation of the relevant material from excavated sites in Jerusalem presents two different types of archaeological findings: on the one hand, a number of sites yielding evidence of mass burials, and on the other hand, no traces of destruction or damage in churches and monasteries throughout the city and its environs.

Mass Burials

A detailed analysis of Byzantine burial sites around Jerusalem reveals several large concentrations of human bones. These are not of the ordinary type of urban burials, characteristic of the Byzantine period, which included either single tombs or family burial caves, but rather intentional gatherings of numerous corpses into a cave, water cistern, or an existing family burial cave. Seven such sites were identified in Jerusalem, all located outside the walls of the Old City, and related to the Byzantine period.

The most explicit of these is a rock cut cave located in Mamilla, about 120 m. west of Jaffa Gate. It was part of one of the urban cemeteries of Jerusalem, which was in use from the eighth – seventh centuries BCE to the Byzantine period. Among the common types of tombs and burial caves was a cave exceptional in its shape and contents. This elongated cave, c. 12m. long and 3 m. wide, was filled with heaps of human bones. In front of the cave was a small chapel with an apse facing east.

Chapel in front of the mass burial cave at Mamilla

The chapel walls were coated with painted plaster, and the apse bore traces of a fresco depicting an angel extending his hands. The floor was paved with a mosaic decorated with three crosses. A four-line inscription within a tabula ansata was located near the entrance to the cave, containing a prayer "for the redemption and salvation of those, God knows their names."

Greek inscription at the entrance of the mass burial cave - "for the salvation and redemption of those known only to God"

The excavation of the cave itself yielded hundreds of human skeletons. An anthropological analysis indicated that the deceased were relatively young compared with those in contemporary cemeteries, and that women outnumbered men. All this suggests that the deceased met a sudden death.

The finds inside the cave included cross-shaped pendants, candlestick lamps, and about 130 coins, the latest of which was a gold issue of emperor Phocas (602-610 CE). These findings connected the mass burial to the Christian population of Jerusalem, pointing to the early seventh century as the date of entombment and connecting it to the Persian invasion.

The location of the cave, near Jaffa Gate and about 200 m. east of the large Roman period pool of Mammila, correlates with the site mentioned by Strategius as one of the places in which the Christians of Jerusalem were massacred by the Persians following the conquest.

Air view of the Mamilla pool west of Jaffa gate

After the massacre, Thomas buried the deceased in a nearby cave:

Those whom they found they collected in great haste and with much zeal, and buried them in the grotto of Mamel (Conybeare 1910:508).

The geographical and chronological contexts of the Mamilla burial cave match the detailed references to the place of massacre and entombment, and it seems highly probable that this was one of the locations in which the massacred Christians of Jerusalem were buried. The construction of the chapel at the entrance of the cave was probably undertaken shortly after the massacre, perhaps within the years of the Persian domination (614-628 CE) or when Byzantine rule on Jerusalem was restored under Heraclius (628-636 CE).

A careful investigation of other large-scale concentrations of human bones around Jerusalem which were associated with Byzantine remains reveals six additional mass burial sites, all containing large numbers of human bones associated with sixth and seventh century CE remains (see map below):

           Jerusalem, 7th century CE

It should be noted that the burial in these mass burial sites is much different from the ordinary type of Byzantine burials in Jerusalem. Caves with multiple burials were found occasionally around the city, for example at Akeldama. However, interment in these caves does not show evidence for hasty entombment of a large number of people within a short period of time. It seems that although the ordinary Byzantine burial practices consist of multiple burials in family burial caves or within the precincts of monasteries, the evidence from the mass burial sites is exceptional, indicating a hasty burial of numerous deceased within a short period of time.

Not all of these mass burial sites can accurately be dated to the time of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem. However, most of them yielded finds from the sixth and seventh centuries, and the clear evidence from the Mamilla burial cave points to a precise date within the early seventh century. Although the connection of the mass burial sites to the Persian invasion seems reasonable, their association with other catastrophes, such as the 542 CE plague, cannot be ruled out. However, it seems that the archaeological context does not support this possibility. The anthropological examination of bones from the Mamilla cave showed no pathological indication for diseases. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that burial sites for the victims of a plague would be located within the urban area of Jerusalem, exposing the population to the dangers of infection. The location of all seven mass burial sites in the extramural area of Byzantine Jerusalem further enhances the possibility that these interred were indeed the victims of the Persian massacre.

Additional support for the association of the mass burial sites to the Persian conquest comes from the connection of these sites to places mentioned by Strategius as the burial sites of the massacre victims. Thirty-five locations are mentioned in his list, and some of them can be identified with places around the city. The largest number of deceased was found in the Mamilla pool, west of Jaffa Gate. The different manuscripts provide two different countings, either 4518 (4618 according to another version), or 24,518 people who were massacred here and brought for burial by Thomas "the Grave Digger."

Destruction in the City?

The archaeological evidence from excavations in sixth and seventh century CE phases of buildings within the city seems to be less conclusive as to the amount of damages caused during the Persian conquest. It was suggested that the Persian conquest involved also considerable destruction and abandonment of residential quarters in Jerusalem. Mass destruction of churches in Jerusalem in the course of the conquest is mentioned in a number of sources. Strategius, for example, states that:

Holy churches were burned with fire, others were demolished, majestic altars fell prone, sacred crosses were trampled underfoot, life-giving icons were spat upon by the unclean… When the people were carried into Persia and the Jews were left in Jerusalem, they began with their own hands to demolish and burn such of the holy churches as were left standing (Conybeare 1910:507, 508).

However, all excavated sites in Jerusalem show a clear pattern of continuity, with no evidence for destruction by the Persian conquest of 614 or the Arab conquest of 636.

Contrary to previous interpretations, it seems that the areas south of the Temple Mount and in the City of David did not suffered any damages by both conquests. Streets and houses had been used continuously from the Byzantine into the Early Islamic times and were abandoned only in the medieval period.

A clear continuity of Byzantine structures after the Persian conquest is attested in a building exposed near the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount. A lintel above one of its inner rooms had originally been inscribed with crosses, and in a later stage was covered with white plaster depicting menoroth. It was suggested that this building had originally been inhabited by Christians, and following the Persian conquest it was resettled by Jews. In any case, the so-called “House of the Menoroth” was not destroyed by the Persians. It was inhabited for a short time after the conquest and was abandoned by the end of the seventh century.

Other areas of Byzantine Jerusalem show similar continuity in settlement with no signs of damage or destruction. Excavations conducted to the east of Herod’s Gate revealed a sequence of residential units that were inhabited continuously from the late Byzantine into the Early Islamic periods, i.e., from the fifth to the eleventh centuries.

A number of archaeological reports on excavated sites in Jerusalem and its surroundings refer to the Persian conquest as the cause for the destruction or abandonment of churches and monasteries. However, a careful analysis of excavation reports of selected sites shows that in none of them is there conclusive archaeological evidence for early seventh-century destruction, or for abandonment at the end of the Byzantine period. Many sites that had been supposedly destroyed by the Persians actually continued in use into the Early Islamic period.

Recent excavations in Byzantine monastic complexes around Jerusalem also failed to provide any evidence for destruction or damage in the early seventh century, and it seems that the network of Byzantine monasteries continued to function uninterruptedly between the seventh and ninth centuries.

Some of the most famous churches in Jerusalem were described as damaged or destroyed by the Persians, but careful analysis of the archaeological evidence from these structures does not support the accepted historical narrative. This was the case with the churches of Eleona and Gethsemane on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, the New Church of Theotokos (the Nea) in today's Jewish Quarter, the Church of the Probatica, north of the Temple Mount, the Church of Holy Zion on Mt. Zion

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is mentioned in most historical sources related to the conquest. According to most sources the church was set on fire and badly damaged. However, a detailed archaeological study of the church conducted by the author reveals no evidence of significant damage or destruction in the early seventh century, or of large scale repairs and renovations following the Persian conquest. Furthermore, in a recent study of inscribed monograms found on capitals of the Byzantine church that were removed during modern renovations, Di Segni concluded that these capitals were installed by the emperor Mauricius (582-602), who conducted large scale repairs at the church several years before the Persian conquest. These capitals were left intact and undamaged by the Persians. It seems that the church was only slightly damaged by fire during the sack of Jerusalem, and no structural damage was caused to the building.

In conclusion, it seems that unlike the dramatic historical descriptions, the archaeological evidence for the Persian conquest of Jerusalem, while reinforcing the evidence of the massacre of its Christian population, seems to be less conclusive on large scale damages to Christian churches and monasteries. The archaeological record provides evidence for several mass burials around the city but bears no evidence for large scale damage or destruction in residential areas and ecclesiastical compounds. On the contrary, a clear pattern of continuity throughout the seventh century was observed in almost all the sites excavated in and around Jerusalem.

The numerous sites in which no archaeological evidence for damage or destruction was found and the possibility that buildings were damaged by the conquest and then rapidly repaired raise the question of how discernible are such short-term changes in the archaeological record. Perhaps these changes were blurred in the long history of the monuments, and thus were not detected through excavations. A number of sources praise the repairs of churches and monasteries in Jerusalem conducted by Modestus following the conquest. These extensive repairs could have eliminated the evidence for large scale damages caused by the Persian Sack. Moreover, even if churches and monasteries were damaged and then quickly repaired, the scope of damage would have been rather small, ruling out a total abandonment of churches and monasteries as a consequence of the conquest, as previously claimed. Such abandonment would have been detected in the archaeological record. The continuity of settlement throughout the seventh century attests to the resilience of the local Christian community.

In a wider context, the archaeological evidence on the effects of the Persian conquest provides a vivid proof of the resilience of the Christian society of Palestine. Although the historical sources emphasize the disruptions caused to Jerusalem and to other parts of the country, it seems that in the longue duree the Persian and Islamic conquests had only a minor effect on settlement and society. The Persian sack left only a marginal impact, while a more significant urban change came only with the consolidation of the new Islamic presence. This was expressed in the large scale construction in and around the Temple Mount, while other sections of the city continued to prosper as Christian neighborhoods.

A wider historical conclusion from the Persian Conquest of Jerusalem is that changes in settlement patterns and in the social stability of Byzantine Palestine were not dictated by short-term military episodes but were part of a long-term process of cultural and religious change, which spanned over several centuries, and was culminated only in the eve of the Crusader conquest of Palestine. The Persian conquest of Jerusalem should be thus considered as one episode having a minor role within this long-term process.


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