Most of the churches of the Holy Land were constructed according
to a basilical plan, consisting of a large hall divided, by two
rows of columns, into a central nave and two side aisles. All the
churches were built along an east-west axis and had a semicircular
niche - an apse - in the eastern wall. On either side of the apse,
at the ends of the aisles, were two square rooms or small apses.
The entrance to the church was usually from the west via a vestibule
- the narthex - and, occasionally, an entrance courtyard - the atrium.
The apse and the raised platform in front of it - the bema - were
surrounded by a low stone partition - the chancel screen - which
separated the congregation from the sacred area, where the liturgical
rites were performed. The officiating clergy sat on benches built
along the walls of the apse, with the bishop in the center. Toward
the front of the bema stood the altar, beneath which, in a depression
in the floor, a reliquary was hidden. Additional tables, on which
the Scriptures and various liturgical objects were placed, also
stood on the bema.
Several steps led from the bema up to a pulpit - the ambo - which
protruded into the nave and from which the scriptural passages were
read. Within the church, particularly toward the front of the hall,
glass oil lamps and chandeliers were suspended from the ceiling
beams, together with censers and crosses. The walls, mainly of the
apse, were decorated with frescos and mosaics.
The partial reconstruction of the front of a church presented here
incorporates elements from various churches excavated in this country:
the mosaic floor is from Castra on the Carmel Coast; the altar is
from Khirbet ed-Deir in the Judean Desert; the small table is from
Horvat Hesheq in the western Galilee; and the ambo is from Tel Istaba
in Beth Shean. The chancel screen panels are from Beth Shean, Carmiel,
and Massuot Yizhak.
A corner of the exhibition featuring a reconstruction
of the bema of a typical church in the Holy Land
Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Staff Archaeological
Officer in the
Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria
Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem / by Avraham Hay
Pulpit (Ambo) from the Church of St. Theodoros
Khirbet Beit Sila, north of Jerusalem, 6th century
Staff Archaeological Officer in the Civil Administration
of Judea and Samaria, K28908-28910, K29518, K30188, K30189
Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem / by Avraham Hay
The reading of the Scriptures in the church was conducted from
a raised, decorated pulpit (ambo), which protruded from the bema
into the nave. In numerous churches, parts of these pulpits were
found, but very few complete examples have been preserved. Illustrations
of pulpits have come down to us in manuscripts from later periods.
In honor of this exhibition, two pulpits have been restored - one
from the Martyr's Church in Beth Shean and the other - the most
complete ever discovered in Israel - from the Church of St. Theodoros,
recently excavated at Khirbet Beth Sila, northwest of Jerusalem.
It is made of carved slabs of bituminous stone, and on its floor,
a dedicatory inscription reads: "Lord, please receive the offering
of your servant, the priest Peter." Practically identical slabs
were found on Mount Nebo and at Umm el-Rasas in Jordan; they all
probably came from the same workshop.
The Church of St. Theodoros was built in the sixth century. It
was designed as a basilica with two square rooms next to the apse.
The nave, aisles and bema were paved with mosaics. A panel from
the altar base has survived (presented on the opposite wall), and
beneath it, a niche was discovered containing a small reliquary.
This box contained a long strand of hair, apparently the sacred
relic. An additional reliquary was placed in a niche in the church's
An inscription describing the construction of the church is found
on the mosaic floor of the nave: "For the salvation and help
of the Priest Peter/Petros, who with the joy granted him by St.
Theodoros, made the nave of the church and the apse. And the niches
(with the relics) were made on the tenth of November... "Coincidentally,
the inscription was discovered exactly 1,500 years after it was
written - on November 10, 1997.
Church of St. Theodoros at Khirbet Beit Sila, proposed
Drawing: Staff Archaeological Officer in the Civil Administration
of Judea and Samaria / by Felix Portnov
The Baptismal Font
Baptismal font in the northern church at Shivta
Photo: Baruch Gian
The rite of baptism - symbolizing the purification of sins and
rebirth - marks an individual's acceptance into the Church. In the
Byzantine period, this rite was only performed after the candidate
for conversion (catechumen) had completed a rigorous course of study.
During this lengthy ceremony, the catechumen was immersed in water,
anointed with oil, and dressed in a pure white garment. Only then
was he or she permitted to enter the church and participate in the
Eucharist by partaking of the holy bread and wine.
The baptismal fonts were not unified in shape. Sometimes they were
small pools coated with plaster, but the more common type was a
square, round, or cruciform basin hewn into a block of stone and
with a deep cruciform of quatrefoil depression at the bottom. Since
such basins could be quite deep, they also occasionally had steps
carved into the walls, to make it easier to climb in and out. The
baptismal fonts were usually situated in one of the rooms adjacent
to the apse, or sometimes in a special baptismal chapel adjoining
Over the course of the Byzantine period, the number of adult baptisms
for the purpose of conversion to Christianity decreased. At the
same time, the baptism of infants became common. This was a short
ceremony and did not require large or sophisticated baptismal fonts.
Baptismal font hewn in stone
Central church at Herodium, 6th century
Staff Archaeological Officer in the Civil
Administration of Judea and Samaria, K030582
Photo: The Israel Museum / by Andrei Vainer
Chancel Screens and Tables
The chancel screen, which separated the bema from the rest of
the hall, consisted of square colonnettes interspersed with carved
slabs, held in place by grooves that ran along the sides of the
colonnettes. Many of the screens are made of marble and may have
been imported from the large marble quarries of Greece. Screens
made of local stone, undoubtedly carved in this region, were also
common. It is not unusual to find identical motifs on both the marble
screens and on those made of local stone.
All the chancel screens have a carved border, but the motifs inside
this border are highly varied. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern
several common types, which recur with only slight variations. A
motif depicting a blossom with crosses inside a laurel wreath was
particularly popular. Screens of this type have been unearthed in
churches all over Israel and Jordan. A similar motif, in which the
blossom-cross is replaced by a menorah, is also found in synagogue
screens of the period. Another type of chancel screen is decorated
with the motif of a cross on the hill of Golgotha; it is occasionally
flanked by a pair of symmetrically arranged gazelle, ibex, or birds.
A screen of this type still stands in St. Catherine's Monastery,
Tables - round, rectangular, and sigma-shaped - were also an important
part of the church furnishings. The tabletops were made of marble,
local stone, or bituminous stone, which is easy to carve. They rested
on wooden legs or bases (which have not survived) or on marble legs
carved to resemble columns, complete with bases and capitals, which
were sometimes fixed to the floor. The altars were usually rectangular.
Tables were also used for reading, for receiving the gifts of the
faithful, and, perhaps, as secondary altars in the cult of the martyrs
that took place in the side apses.
the Days of Jesus |In
the Early Church |Pilgrimage
& Symbols |Monasticism
in the Holy Land