A church that dates to the Byzantine period which is paved with breathtakingly beautiful mosaics and a dedicatory inscription was exposed in an archaeological excavation the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting near Moshav Nes-Harim, 5 kilometers east of Bet Shemesh (at the site of Horvat A-Diri), in the wake of plans to enlarge the moshav. According to archaeologist Daniel Ein Mor, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The site was surrounded by a small forest of oak trees and is covered with farming terraces that were cultivated by the residents of Nes-Harim. Prior to the excavation we discerned unusually large quantities of pottery sherds from the Byzantine period and thousands of mosaic tesserae that were scattered across the surface level.”
The excavation seems to have revealed the very center of the site, which extends across an area of approximately 15 dunams, along the slope of a spur that descends toward Nahal Dolev.
During the first season of excavation (November 2008) the church’s narthex (the broad entrance at the front of the church’s nave) was exposed in which there was a carpet of polychrome mosaics that was adorned with geometric patterns of intertwined rhomboids separated by flower bud motifs. Unfortunately, at the conclusion of the excavation this mosaic was defaced and almost completely destroyed by unknown vandals.
During that excavation season a complex wine press was partly exposed that consists of at least two upper treading floors and elongated, well-plastered arched cells below them that were probably meant to facilitate the preliminary fermentation there of the must. Part of the main work surface, which was paved with large coarse tesserae, was exposed at the foot of these cells. A complex wine press of this kind is indicative of a wine making industry at the site; this find is in keeping with the presence here of a church and is consistent with our knowledge about Byzantine monasteries in the region during this period (6th-7th centuries CE).
Other parts of the church were revealed in the current excavation season. The area of the apse was almost entirely exposed, as were other parts of the southern aisle.
Two rooms that are adjacent to the northern and southern sides of the church were also uncovered. In the southern room a mosaic pavement was exposed that is decorated with intertwined patterns of different size concentric circles. The mosaic also includes a dedicatory inscription written in ancient Greek that was deciphered by Dr. Leah Di Signi of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem:
O Lord God of saint Theodorus, protect Antonius and Theodosia the illustres (illustres – a title used to distinguish high nobility in the Byzantine period) [- – – ] Theophylactus and John the priest (or priests). [Remember o Lord] Mary and John who have offe[red – – ] in the 6th indiction. Lord, have pity of Stephen.
Various phases that were used after the church was abandoned in the later part of the Byzantine period were discerned elsewhere in the structure. The mosaic floor was completely destroyed in different places and the area inside the church was put to secondary use. Industrial installations that are ascribed to the same phase were found which attest to the functional change the building underwent during the end of the Byzantine period-beginning of the Early Islamic period (7th century CE).
According to Daniel Ein Mor, “We know of other Byzantine churches and sites that are believed to be Byzantine monasteries, which are located in the surrounding region. The excavation at Nes-Harim supplements our knowledge about the nature of the Christian-Byzantine settlement in the rural areas between the main cities in this part of the country during the Byzantine period, among them Bet Guvrin, Emmaus and Jerusalem.”