During a 2017 exploration of a ruined settlement in the Negev desert, art historian Emma Maayan-Fanar entered an ancient church to seek shelter from the bright sun. As she looked up at the roof, however, she saw something remarkable. And the dirty, damaged painting above was unlike any that had been previously found. In fact, the find could help create a whole new understanding of the region’s ancient art.
Israel is arguably the birthplace of three of the world’s major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These faiths are all known as “Abrahamic,” as they each revere a man called Abraham who is said to have lived thousands of years ago in ancient Israel.
Even so, there are very few historical sources to confirm or deny Abraham’s existence. And most of what we know of ancient Israel comes from the Hebrew Bible. This is another name for the Jewish holy writings known as the Tanakh, which are also the basis of the Christian Old Testament. It should be noted, though, that the Hebrew Bible was written centuries after the alleged events that it recounts.
The first non-Biblical reference to Israel, meanwhile, is Egyptian and originates from around 1230 B.C. Then, by approximately 1000 B.C., it seems that an Israelite kingdom had been united under King David. And it was David’s son King Solomon who apparently constructed the temple that helped solidify Jerusalem as a religious hub – although the kingdom again became divided after Solomon’s death.
Since that time, the area that we now call Israel has been ruled over by a succession of different powers. Initially, the region was a Roman province – before it fell under the Byzantine Empire; and after that, it was conquered by the expanding Muslim caliphate. There then ensued hundreds of years of conflict in the Middle East between European Christians and Muslims, both of whom claimed that the “Holy Land” belonged to them.
Finally, in 1948 the independent state of Israel – the only majority Jewish country in the world – was created. Yet the country’s birth also displaced a number of the Palestinians who lived in the area – many of whom were Muslim. And Israel is still a place where religion fuels ongoing conflicts.
But what of the Negev desert, where the painting that we heard about earlier was found? Well, this is situated in the south of Israel, although it spans both Israeli and Palestinian territories. In fact, the Negev covers close to 4,700 square miles in all, including around 60 percent of Israel-held land. The desert’s name, meanwhile, is thought by some to originate from a Hebrew verbal root meaning “to dry.”
It’s worth noting, though, that the Negev is not completely arid. Indeed, in one section of the desert, there has been notable rainfall – enough to have allowed for grain farming in parts of the territory. Irrigation, too, has taken place in the Negev for agricultural purposes.
And the desert was also once occupied, as there are records of people having lived in the Negev several millennia ago. Ancient tribes including the Edomite and Canaanite peoples apparently settled there, leaving behind their previously nomadic existences. Plus, the great civilization of ancient Egypt helped develop mining in the area.
But perhaps most importantly for Israel’s religious history, Judaism and Christianity both consider the Negev to be the home of Abraham. Abraham is said to have herded his animals there; and his successors – fellow religious patriarchs Isaac and Jacob – supposedly did the same.
Today, then, the Negev is home to several cities as well as a significant population of Jewish and Bedouin inhabitants – the latter of whom are descended from people who roamed the desert 7,000 years or so ago. And since the Negev has such a long history, it has proved to be a major site for archaeological investigation.
There have been some significant discoveries made in the desert, too – including the painting found in 2017 by Emma Maayan-Fanar. The image depicted is thought to have been created in the sixth century A.D. – a time when what we now know as Israel was part of the Byzantine Empire.
In 364 A.D. the Roman Empire was split in two. And while the western half would ultimately be blighted by barbarian invasion, the eastern portion was to remain strongly influenced by Roman culture for a further thousand years. That part was known as the Eastern Roman Empire in its day; in modern times, though, it’s often referred to as the Byzantine Empire.
Byzantium itself was originally an ancient Greek colony, with its location on the Bosporus strait having made it a meeting point between Europe and Asia. Then, in 330 A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine gave the settlement a major city. He called the place Constantinople, and it became the center of the Byzantine Empire. Today, Constantinople is the Turkish city that we know as Istanbul.
It may also be fair to say that Christianity was important to the Byzantine people; Constantine was the emperor who institutionalized Christianity as the state religion of Rome, after all. The people of the Eastern Roman Empire generally considered themselves to be true Romans, too, and believed that their empire was almost a divine creation.
Constantine also ultimately declared himself “bishop of foreign affairs” in order that he could be a religious leader. Indeed, Byzantine emperors were considered priests as well as secular rulers; they were additionally heads of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Eventually, though, the Byzantine Empire fell to the invasions of the Ottoman Turks. And the Ottoman Empire in turn lasted until shortly after the First World War, when many of its constituent countries became independent. As a result, the foundations of Turkey and the Middle East as we know them today were laid by the fall of the Ottomans.
But let’s now focus on the former village of Shivta, where the painting was discovered. When Shivta was originally built in the Negev desert, it lay along a trading path between eastern Arabia and the coast of the Mediterranean. In fact, the village was once among the series of settlements that formed what’s now known as the Incense Route.
The first inhabitants of Shivta, meanwhile, lived there from 100 B.C. – prior to the Romans’ arrival. The settlement’s collapse didn’t come until after the rise of Islam some 900 years later, you see, although Christian pilgrims would apparently stay there when traveling to the Sinai Peninsula during the latter part of the Byzantine Empire’s existence. But it was during an earlier period – between roughly 400 A.D and 600 A.D. – that Shivta really thrived.
Subsequently, after Shivta’s demise, the area remained virtually untouched for centuries. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later, in fact, that explorers found the ruins of the village. It was the orientalist Edward Henry Palmer who came across the remains of what had once been Shivta. And the first archaeological excavations there took place in the 1870s.
Then, in 1914 a particularly notable figure, along with another archaeologist called C.L. Woolley, conducted a more scientific study of the area. That man was T.E. Lawrence – subject of the Oscar-winning film Lawrence of Arabia and a major contributor to the overthrow of the Ottomans by the Arab peoples.
Today, Shivta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as the location of an Israeli national park, so its historical importance has clearly been noticed by the world. Indeed, funds for recent excavations there came from both the Israel Science Foundation and the European Research Council.
There are also three ancient churches in Shivta, with each holding the potential to reveal more about Christianity in the Byzantine Empire. The painting found in 2017 wasn’t the first major discovery that had been made in one of these former places of worship, either.
Indeed, archaeologists had observed nearly a hundred years previously that there were paintings on a church ceiling in Shivta. These works weren’t paid major scrutiny at the time, though – perhaps because they were high above the church floor and so hard to access.
Then, during the 2017 investigation, Emma Maayan-Fanar was exploring the churches of Shivta in more depth when she stumbled across a painting that hadn’t previously been on record. Her husband, Dror Maayan, would then use his camera to capture high-definition images of the site.
As for what the 1,500-year-old painting depicts? Well – rather aptly given its location above a font – the work seems to show a baptism scene. It is thought, moreover, that the figure seen performing the baptism in the painting is intended to be John the Baptist, while the person he is blessing is Jesus.
The discovery is certainly an important one – not least because there are very few paintings of Jesus dating back to the earliest days of Christianity. From the eighth century onwards, the Byzantine Empire banned the use of religious imagery in art for many years. And the relic found at Shivta is the only picture of the baptism of Jesus that can be dated to before this ban, even though the subject was popular in later Christian art.
More than this, though, the way that Jesus is depicted in the painting may reveal a lot about both Christian history and Byzantine attitudes to religious art. For one, the figure believed to represent Jesus is short-haired. And this puts the image in marked contrast to the idea that Jesus had longer locks – a perception that is still prevalent today.
Artworks of Jesus in which he has short hair originated from the Syro-Palestine area in latter-day Syria, Israel and Palestine; they were also to be found in Egypt. As Byzantine art progressed, though, such depictions of Christ became less and less common. And since there is no full description of Jesus’ appearance in the Bible, separate societies and eras have portrayed the religious figure in differing manners.
But Jesus isn’t the only figure seemingly depicted in the painting at Shivta, of course; John the Baptist also appears to feature in the work. The image of John is much larger than that of Jesus, too, and this suggests to some that Jesus is the younger man of the two.
In the Bible, John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for Christ. And baptism is also associated with the idea of rebirth, which could be another reason why Jesus appears to be younger than his counterpart in the painting.
Furthermore, while another painting apparently depicting the transfiguration of Christ has been found in Shivta, Jesus’ face in the work has unfortunately been worn away. And this makes the visible face of Jesus in the baptism image particularly important. For one, it has helped experts assess the age of the painting by comparing it to others containing similar facial details.
The oldest recorded image of Jesus was created some time in the third century. And it was found in Syria – another modern country that was once part of the Byzantine Empire. Yet the Dura-Europos church where the work is located itself dates back further, to Roman times. Indeed, even today this early place of worship sits alongside a Jewish synagogue and temples to various Greek, Roman and Eastern gods.
The wider Negev desert, too, continues to be a rich source of ancient artwork and carvings. In 2018 a Roman water cistern complete with an engraving of a fleet of boats was unearthed in the region, for instance. And a stone inscription found in Jerusalem that same year may represent the first time that the city’s name was marked in full on such a material; this discovery, for the record, apparently dates back to around 2,000 years ago.
In 2018 an old home was also found at the site of Tel ‘Eton, and this find could in turn help researchers to learn more about the ancient kingdom that was apparently ruled by David and then his son Solomon. Elsewhere, a signature on a clay seal discovered in February 2018 may belong to Isaiah – a significant figure in both Judaism and Christianity. And finally, a collection of bronze coins unearthed in Jerusalem in April 2018 could derive from a Jewish rebellion against Rome that occurred millennia ago.
Needless to say, archaeologists are continuing to search Israel for other parts of Biblical and Jewish history. Some are working, for example, to find the home of the Ark of the Covenant – one of the most sacred artifacts mentioned in the Bible. And another project may have uncovered the lost Roman city where some of Jesus’ disciples are thought to have lived.
But Maayan-Fanar has undoubtedly made an important discovery of her own – one that she and colleagues at the University of Haifa expand upon in a paper published in 2018 in the journal Antiquity. That doesn’t mean that the university team’s research is finished, though. They have a lot of work to do to both further understand the painting and make sure it’s kept safe.
Yet while the dirt covering the Shivta painting may have made it hard to see, it has also served an important purpose. That’s because the grime has acted as a protective layer, keeping the work safe. And if the dirt isn’t removed properly, there’s a risk that the painting will be damaged further.
Careful study of the painting will therefore involve recording every detail of the materials and processes that were used to make it. This will then help the researchers assess the best way to protect the work so that it can be preserved for centuries to come.
And while the painting itself may have initially seemed to be an unimportant artifact, it could yet turn out to shed new light on religious history. The discovery also shows how important it is for archaeologists to keep investigating areas that have been dismissed by others. Who knows what other treasures are still lost in the Negev desert?
But until experts know more, there are other biblical finds that continue to fascinate archaeologists and Christians alike. In the ancient city of Hippos in Israel, for instance, one incredible discovery looks as though it may have huge implications for historians’ understanding of a famous Bible story.