A team of Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists surveying the site of a cable line installation near Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate this summer have discovered a rare 6th century mosaic inscription that namedrops the Emperor Justinian. The excavation was just about complete with little to show for it besides a few extremely damaged ancient remains that were mangled by repeated infrastructure projects in the area in recent decades. Then the team spied a piece of the mosaic inscription between the network of pipes and cables.
When they excavated it fully, they found large room with a surviving mosaic tile floor. Most of the floor is covered in simple white tesserae, but one section has an inscription in black tile. The six lines of Greek mention the precise date, Constinius (aka Constantine), who was in charge of the building project, and the Byzantine Emperor Flavius Justinianus, better known to us today as Justinian the Great.
Dr. Leah Di Segni, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the expert on ancient Greek inscriptions, deciphered the inscription. The inscription reads, “In the time of our most pious emperor Flavius Justinian, also this entire building Constantine the most God-loving priest and abbot, established and raised, in the 14th indiction”. According to Di Segni, “This inscription commemorates the founding of the building by Constantine, the priest. The inscription names the emperor Flavius Justinian. It seems that the building was used as a hostel for pilgrims.” Di Segni added, “‘Indiction’ is an ancient method of counting years, for taxation purposes. Based on historical sources, the mosaic can be dated to the year 550/551 AD.”
For centuries the Damascus Gate was the main entrance into northern Jerusalem, and the area became a hive of activity during the 6th century under the fully Christianized Byzantine Empire thanks to a sharp increase in religious construction and pilgrimages to Jerusalem. The building with the mosaic floor was on the road leading into and out of the gate, the perfect location for a pilgrim hostel.
Constinius is also mentioned in another inscription a church in the Old City: the Nea Church dedicated in 542 A.D., the largest church in Jerusalem at that time and one of the most important in the Byzantine Empire. It even made it on the extraordinary Madaba Map, a cartographic floor mosaic of the Middle East in the apse of the 6th century church of Saint George at Madaba, Jordan, which contains the first known map of Jerusalem. An inscription found on the vault of the Nea Church, first excavated in 1970, again mentions Constantine, the abbot of the church, and Emperor Justinian.
That Constinius oversaw the construction of Jerusalem’s most important church inside the city walls as well the pilgrim hostel outside the walls shows how prominent a person he was in mid-6th century Jerusalem. Since a number of other structures from this time have been unearthed in the Damascus Gate area, archaeologists believe he was involved in large-scale, organized building projects of churches, monastery complexes and other religious structures both inside and outside the city walls.
Di Segni adds, “This new inscription helps us understand Justinian’s building projects in Jerusalem, especially the Nea Church. The rare combination of archaeological finds and historical sources, woven together, is incredible to witness, and they throw important light on Jerusalem’s past.”
The mosaic has been lifted from the site and, after briefly being displayed to the press at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, is now undergoing conservation at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s laboratory.