February 2, 2011

Grave Robbers Lead Archeologists To Ancient Church

Israeli authorities said Wednesday that the pursuit of a gang of grave robbers has led to the discovery of an ancient church outside Jerusalem that may contain the burial place of the biblical prophet Zechariah.

An earthquake destroyed the church about 1,300 years ago and it lay partly buried until detectives from Israel's Antiquities Authority noticed an elaborate doorpost poking through the earth.

The robbers got away but after weeks of digging, archaeologists uncovered the remains of the church.

It was about the size of a basketball court and contained fallen marble pillars and a 30-feet long mosaic floor.

There is an altar beneath the church's floor that the Antiquities Authority said may have been the tomb of the prophet Zechariah.

They said that the claim, which a number of experts have based on Christian sources and an ancient diagram known as the Madaba Map, has not been proved and is still being studied.

"It's been years since we've made a find like this," said Amir Ganor, head of the Antiquities Robbery Prevention unit.

Ganor is an archaeologist who carries a handgun.  His team spends much of its time trying to catch thieves, spending nights lying in ambush or setting up stings for crooked antiquities dealers.

He said that a group of Palestinians from the West Bank who were plundering ancient coins revealed the location of the lost church, about 25 miles south of Jerusalem.

Shai Bartura, Ganor's deputy, said the building was a unique discovery because of its size and good condition.

The building was built on even older foundations dating back to the Roman Empire and the period of the second Jewish Temple.  It includes a subterranean complex of caves and tunnels used by Jewish rebels fighting the Romans in the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 AD.


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