Located in the western Negev, some 25 km. west of Be’er Sheva, Horvat Be’er Shema (חורבת באר שמע) was a large village during the Roman-Byzantine period on the incense trade route. Its ancient name – Birsama (בירזמה (באר צמא) – was mentioned in writings of that period (Onomasticon of Eusebius of Caesarea, the Byzantine Notitia Dignitatum) as an important fortress, which served as the administrative center of a region known as Gerar. The fortress and the village, on the main road from the east to the port of Gaza, covered an area of about 100 acres (500 Dunam). Wells dug into the aquifer ensured its water supply.
The Church of Saint Stephen
The first excavation of the church was by Alois Musil in 1902.
In 1989-1990 the remains of a 6th – early 7th century Byzantine church, measuring 21 x 12.5 m., were uncovered by Dan Gazit and Yishayahu Lander. It stood on a 2 m.-high podium and was part of a large monastic complex, of which not much has been exposed. The walls of the church – only 2-3 courses remain today – were constructed of well-trimmed stones covered with white plaster.
This basilical church faced east. At its entrance was a narthex paved in stone, from which three openings led to the prayer hall, divided by two rows of five columns into a nave and two aisles. The columns supported balconies above the aisles, which were protected by a stone balustrade, fragments of which have been found. The roof was made of wooden beams, as evidenced by the many, large iron nails found in the debris. Also uncovered was the hexagonal base of a freestanding ambo (pulpit), next to a column in the northern row. Three broad steps led to a raised bema – a square platform (5 x 5 m.) in the eastern part of the church, opposite a row of columns. On the platform stood the altar, of which only the foundations remain. Originally, it was built of stone and faced with marble. In the thick eastern wall of the church, beyond the platform, was an apse and small rooms (3.5 x 3.5 m.) on both sides of it. They probably served for storage of cultic objects; their floors had hexagonal depressions lined with marble, obviously reliquaries – containers for sacred relics.
The two aisles were paved with stone tiles; the rest of the church with elaborate, beautifully preserved mosaics in a variety of colors, as well as inscriptions.
The nave (The nave is the central part of a church, stretching from the main entrance). The rectangular carpet of the nave has particularly rich motifs. It is surrounded by a frame with three bands: the two outer bands are decorated with lotus flowers, the inner band with a geometric design. The carpet inside the frame has 55 medallions arranged in 5 rows of 11, covering the length of the nave. The medallions are created by vines with leaves and clusters of grapes that emanate from an amphora at the western edge of the carpet, at the entrance to the church. Two lions, on either side of the amphora, face each other. The spaces between the medallions are filled with birds: a partridge, a hoopoe, a dove and a quail. Human figures, animals and objects are depicted in the medallions, the figures in the rows to the right and left facing the central row. The mosaic is of high artistic quality: the figures are depitcted realistically and in motion, and the clothing in great detail. Among the human figures are a nursing woman, a man playing an oboe, a man leaning on a cane, a man leading an elephant on which a dark-skinned man rides, and men leading a giraffe, a donkey and a laden camel. The animals include a goat, a partridge, a lioness, a bull, a pair of doves in a dovecote, a dog chasing a fox, another chasing a rabbit, a bird in a cage, a bear, a duck, a leopard hunting a deer, a wolf hunting an ibex, a puppy, a snake fighting a marten and a peacock. The objects include a basket of fruit and one of grapes. Between the nave and the bema, in frames composed of a meander of circles and rhomboids, are two inscriptions.
The bema (an elevated platform used as an orator’s podium). The carpet decorating the bema is unique in its beauty, with blue, green and brown glass elements. It consists of two frames and a five-line inscription in front of the altar. The outer frame is a chain composed of alternating round and square links. The inner frame is made of 22 medallions containing a variety of geometric meanders.
A rectangular room with a semi-circular baptismal font made of plastered stones (which had been faced with marble) was found south of the church; leading to the bottom of the basin were four broad steps. The baptismal font was surrounded by mosaics in geometric designs, including a cross and an inscription. In front of the basin is a square mosaic carpet with rows of heart-shaped leaves, surrounded by a belt of interlocking geometric forms.
Ten Greek inscriptions are incorporated in the floor of the church, most of them dedicatory. The names of male and female donors appear in the inscriptions, among them names of Arabs, attesting to the conversion of local nomads to Christianity. The name Stephanos, who built the church and dedicated it to St. Stephanos (regarded as the first martyr), appears in several of them.
A dedicatory inscription of geographic-historical significance was discovered in the baptisterium; it mentions the donors and includes the name of the region – Gerar.
The excavation at Horvat Be’er Shema was conducted in 1989-1990 by D. Gazit and Y. Lender on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Tzaferis, Vassilios, ”Greek Inscriptions from the Ancient Church at Horvat Be’er-Shema‘”, Eretz-Israel 25 (1996): 75*-85*.
Be’er Shema – Birsama of the Notitia Dignitatum: A Prolegomenon to the 2006 Excavations
כנסיית סטפנוס הקדוש בחורבת באר-שמע