The rivers of Paradise in the Byzantine Church near Jabaliyah - Gaza

by Jean-Baptiste Humbert

The Department of Antiquities of the Palestinian National Authority, Gaza, excavated a Byzantine site near Jabaliyah north of Gaza City1.
No urban settlement has been discovered in the vicinity, and the site could be one of the necropolises of ancient Gaza. An extensive cemetery was excavated nearby in 1995. The Byzantine installation was probably built in a funeral sector. Veneration of a certain tomb may explain the origin of the sanctuary. Three distinctive buildings constitute a religious complex: a three-naved church, a diakonikon and a baptistery. All the stone from the walls have been robbed, therefore the plan was reconstructed based on the layout of mosaic pavements.

Plan of the church found in Jabaliyah-Gaza

The church (23 x 13 m) is probably the most ancient part of the building and some architectural adaptations indicate the continuation of more ancient constructions. The choir was completely destroyed. We reconstructed a central apse; another one on the northern aisle is still intact. Of the pavement in the central nave, only a few circular mosaic medallions remain, encircled by foliated vine scrolls. Preserved by remarkable chance, a mosaic inscription commemorates the laying of the pavement and permits us to date it precisely to the beginning of the eighth century AD. The workmanship is of exceptional quality, and indicates that the Christian community in Gaza was still very much in existence in the eighth century AD, and capable of exceptional artistic achievements2. The remains of the pavement spared by the iconoclasts show us representations of wild game, beautifully drawn birds and rustic country scenes. The late dating of the mosaic pavement proves that the intervention of the iconoclasts, that is after 750, is later than previously thought and is associated with Abbasid conservatives. The northern aisle had a mosaic carpet illustrating a profusion of edibles and crockery, in praise of the gifts of creation, possibly a rehearsal of the eschatological banquet.

Mosaic floor of the baptistery

An elongated (18 x 4.5 m) diakonikon in three sections was linked to the church. The western section, accessible to the believers, revealed a mosaic pavement – the most elaborately decorated of the whole complex – with people and large animals on a plain background. An inscription in the diaconicon dates the pavement to the middle of the fifth century AD, 287 years before the pavement of the central nave of the basilica (ca. 732).
The northern building was a baptistery of exceptional size (23 x 10 m) for Palestine. The specific disposition of its four rooms follows the third mystagogic, catechetic homily of St Cyril of Jerusalem (SC 126 bis) that describes the rites of baptism. The large western room through which one entered from outside, served as a reception hall for catechumens until Easter. From there, up two steps leading to a narrow door, the candidates were introduced into a sort of vestibule for the renunciation of Satan. The vestibule had the singularity of containing the large tomb of a benefactor or spiritual leader, but the skeleton lying in a normal position on its back was found under that of another person bent over and across it. The latter could be a gatecrasher from a later period, possibly from the early Islamic rule.
The vestibule was connected to the baptismal hall by two arches. The Greek inscriptions on the mosaics ascribe the embellishment of the hall to two mosaicists from the nearby ancient city of Ashkelon, during the Justinian era. The basin itself must have been built in marble since the whole plating had been stolen. Nevertheless the cross shape was easily discernible through the embedded ashlar, half a meter deep. We were able to restore a cupola on top of the basin: we found bases of colonnettes and a first course of corner-shaped pillars. The entire space was paved with geometrically patterned mosaic pavements, but the decoration surrounding the basin was contrasted by a quaint patched composition in the four quadrants. Despite depredations we were able to reconstruct the decor. Four exotic animals were confined to the protruding angles of the basin. One can identify parts of an elephant, the end of the trunk and the back covered with a tepeion; in a grove, the body of a giraffe in an excellently realistic rendering; and a zebra foot. The missing animal was probably a leopard. This typical African bestiary belongs to the iconographic tradition of the "Ethiopian Landscape", well attested in the Middle East. A dozen giraffes are known in the Gaza Strip alone, and could be the epic testimony of two giraffes passing through Gaza in 573, a diplomatic gift from the Maccurites to emperor Justin ii; or of the parade through Gaza of the exotic animals intended for Anastasius in 496. Can we raise the idea that Gaza was involved in this kind of trade?
These fabulous beasts were combined with four human portrayals: a part of a woman on the left side, a part of an elderly man on the right. They are naked, portrayed half-length in a wavy pattern of water. Other fragments of an identical wavy band indicate that two more busts (now destroyed) were grouped on the west side at the entrance to the basin. They were allegories of rivers according to the Graeco-Roman tradition: rustic deities as human beings meeting their need for water4. Rivulets spring from the woman's breasts. Her nakedness and red-brown skin refer to symbolic Æthiopia, bordering the Red Sea, the undefined southern Arab-African mainland. Two Greek letters GE() help to restore Gehon, the mythic river bordering the land of Kush, and ordinarily assimilated to the Egyptian Nile. Elsewhere the Gehon (or Gihon) is male too. The old man has a green wreath in his hair and shows comparatively clear skin. In the missing part of the pavement we can restore an urn between his arms pouring a stream of water. The name FISON above implies that the elder is the first river of Paradise, winding around the Land of Havilah (Gen. 2, 10) where gold and gems originated, probably to be identified with the Southern kingdoms of Arabia. Emerging from the river, both allegories are naked in a frame of reeds.
The other two allegories, which were destroyed, were the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, displayed before the steps of the basin. Emerging from the waters, the newly baptized stepped over a mosaic inscription, (destroyed, suggested location with fragment of a frame) a short excerpt from the Bible citing water combined with salvation.
The complete composition emphasizes the rich significance of the baptismal iconography. The fabulous bestiary refers to the lost Eden, where innocent Adam reigned over the whole of creation including the animal world. The theme also exists in Greek mythology, and Christ-Orpheus can be seen charming animals with a lyre. The contested David-Orpheus version recovered on an enigmatic pavement on the shore of Gaza could be a hellenized Jewish version of the theme. In both cases they are reminiscences of man before the Fall. The bestiary evoke the early creation surrounding the newly baptized who enter a redeemed world. The exotic animals heighten the beauty of God's creation and reflect his imperial power through diplomatic gifts. They peacefully accompany the newly baptized as they did Adam in Eden. On the other hand, the four rivers specifically evoke Paradise, sources of living water for the renewal of human nature, and the figure of Christ who draws towards Him mankind thirsting for salvation. The four rivers, sources of life, irrigate the entire known world, and salvation is for all mankind, Life and death. In Proto-Byzantine art, the four rivers form a topic within a funeral context, which fits with baptismal theology, since baptism refers to human death.


1 The excavations took place under the direction of Yasser Matar and Ayman Hassuneh of the Department of Antiquities of the Palestinian National Authority, Gaza office, with participation by the École biblique in the framework of the Mission de coopération archéologique franco-palestinienne à Gaza (Ministère français des Affaires étrangères).

2 Archaeological discoveries of churches at Umm er-Rassas provide useful documentation. See Schick 1995.

3 Gatier 1996, 903-941.

4 Février 1956, 179-197.

This contribution was first published in: The Madaba Map Centenary, Jerusalem 1999, 216-218.

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Created Saturday, December 16, 2000 at 11:18:29
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