Rediscovered Faith in Ancient Texts: Psalms 86 Echoes at Hyrcania Site

by Santiago Fernandez
Byzantine Inscriptions Hyrcania

The recent archaeological expedition at the Hyrcania site in the Judean Desert, led by experts from Hebrew University, has yielded remarkable findings, including a Byzantine Greek inscription and an Arabic-scripted gold ring. These discoveries shed light on the site’s past as both a desert fortress and a Christian monastery. Notably, an inscription from the Book of Psalms in Koine Greek was found at the Hyrcania Fortress. This discovery is accredited to The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem embarked on an excavation at the remote Hyrcania location in the Judean Desert. They unearthed an unusual Byzantine Greek inscription that rephrases a verse from the Book of Psalms.

The excavation team from Hebrew University revealed a Koine Greek inscription at the Hyrcania Fortress, reinterpreting Psalms 86. This Byzantine artifact, embellished with a cross, is thought to have been created by a monk familiar with this prayer, both in the Masoretic text and Christian rituals. The inscription is stylistically dated to the early 6th century CE at the latest, revealing the Byzantine era’s pinnacle, with certain grammatical inaccuracies indicating the scribe’s native Semitic language.

Background and Historical Context of the Excavation

The Institute of Archaeology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem recently initiated a preliminary dig at Hyrcania, located in the northern Judean Desert. This followed increased activity from antiquities thieves.

Positioned on a strategically flattened hilltop, about 17 km southeast of Jerusalem and 8 km southwest of Qumran and the Dead Sea, Hyrcania was among several desert fortresses initially built by the Hasmonean dynasty in the late 2nd or early 1st century BCE. It was later expanded and renovated by Herod the Great. The site, like the famous Masada and Herodium, lost its strategic importance and was deserted shortly after Herod’s death in 4 BCE. It remained uninhabited for almost 500 years until a Christian monastery was established in its ruins in 492 CE by monk Holy Sabbas. The monastery, known as Kastellion in Greek, persisted beyond the Islamic conquest of Byzantine Palestine but was eventually abandoned in the early 9th century. The site is also recognized by its Arabic name, Khirbet el-Mird. Despite revival efforts in the 1930s, local Bedouin hostilities ended these attempts.

Prior to the current excavation, sporadic investigations had been conducted, but no systematic, academic archaeological exploration had taken place. Recently, Dr. Oren Gutfeld and Michal Haber from Hebrew University, supported by Carson-Newman University and American Veterans Archaeological Recovery, spent four weeks at the site, revealing crucial aspects of its history.

Significant Discoveries and Analysis

This initial excavation phase mainly concentrated on two areas. In the southeast summit corner, part of the upper fortification from the Second Temple period was uncovered. Dr. Oren Gutfeld noted architectural similarities to Herodium, suggesting a shared vision and possibly the same engineers and planners. In the northeast, an elongated hall with piers was found, belonging to the monastery’s lower level, constructed with finely cut stones.

During the excavation, a significant building stone with red-painted text and a cross was discovered on the hall’s floor. Haber and Gutfeld recognized the Koine Greek inscription, and Dr. Avner Ecker from Bar-Ilan University was called to decipher it.

Dr. Ecker identified the text as a paraphrase of Psalms 86:1–2, a significant prayer in both Masoretic and Christian liturgies. The inscription is dated to the first half of the 6th century CE and contains grammatical errors typical of a Semitic native speaker. This suggests the scribe was likely local and not a native Greek speaker.

Shortly after this find, another nearby inscription on a building stone was discovered and is currently under analysis.

Michal Haber highlighted the inscriptions’ historical importance, noting that they are among the first from the site with a documented context, unlike previously found papyrus fragments with uncertain origins.

Additional Discoveries and Future Plans

Furthermore, a child-sized gold ring with a turquoise stone and an Arabic Kufic script inscription was found. Dr. Nitzan Amitai-Preiss from The Hebrew University deciphered the inscription as “مَا شَاءَ ٱللَّٰهُ” (Mashallah), dating it to the Umayyad caliphate era. The ring, potentially a seal, and the turquoise’s origin add to the historical significance of the discovery.

The excavation team, including partners from Carson-Newman University and American Veterans Archaeological Recovery, eagerly anticipates the next dig season in early 2024.

Benny Har-Even from the Civil Administration of Jude

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Byzantine Inscriptions Hyrcania

What were the key findings of the recent excavation at Hyrcania in the Judean Desert?

The excavation led by Hebrew University archaeologists uncovered a Byzantine Greek inscription paraphrasing a verse from the Book of Psalms, a gold ring with Arabic script, and evidence of the site’s past as a desert fortress and Christian monastery.

Where is the Hyrcania site located?

Hyrcania is located in the northern Judean Desert, approximately 17 km southeast of Jerusalem and 8 km southwest of Qumran and the Dead Sea.

What historical significance does the Hyrcania site hold?

Originally a series of desert fortresses built by the Hasmonean dynasty and later rebuilt by Herod the Great, Hyrcania also housed a Christian monastery established in 492 CE, reflecting the monastic movement in the Byzantine period.

Who conducted the excavation at Hyrcania, and what did they find?

The excavation was conducted by archaeologists from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who discovered a Byzantine Greek inscription, a child-sized gold ring with Arabic script, and architectural elements from both the Second Temple period and the Byzantine era.

What does the inscription found at Hyrcania represent?

The inscription, in Koine Greek, paraphrases Psalms 86:1–2 and is believed to have been crafted by a monk familiar with Christian liturgy. It dates back to the first half of the 6th century CE.

What is the significance of the child-sized gold ring found at the site?

The gold ring, adorned with a turquoise stone and inscribed in Arabic Kufic script, is dated to the Umayyad caliphate era. The script reads “مَا شَاءَ ٱللَّٰهُ” (Mashallah), meaning “God has willed it,” and is believed to have been used as a seal.

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Sara K. November 25, 2023 - 6:55 pm

didn’t realize how significant these finds could be, the link between the Byzantine era and now seems more real. kudos to the team at Hebrew University

John Smith November 26, 2023 - 12:44 am

really interesting stuff! i had no idea about the hyrcania site, its amazing what they found there. Byzantine era is so fascinating.

Jane Doe November 26, 2023 - 2:17 am

wow, this is cool news! the inscription and the gold ring sound incredible. Wonder what else they’ll find there…

Mike Johnson November 26, 2023 - 12:38 pm

I’m not usually into archaeology but this caught my attention, the historical depth of places like Hyrcania is just mind-blowing

Alex Turner November 26, 2023 - 12:41 pm

a bit confusing with all the dates and names, but still pretty cool. these archaeologists do some amazing work.

Emma R. November 26, 2023 - 2:19 pm

always love reading about new discoveries like this! it’s like a window into the past, so much history we’re still uncovering.


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