In excavating the area around the Annunciation site the Franciscan archaeologists not only cleared the different monuments that were built atop the shrine but also had the privilege to examine attentively the uninterrupted veneration that christians treasured jealously. /P>
The site of Nazareth
Excavations in fact not only revealed the sanctity of the site but also the remains of the ancient village of Nazareth with its silos, cisterns and other cave-dwellings. No construction survived the impetus of time.
The baptistry outside the Church
Around the Grotto the archaologists could read backwards the history of the site. After removing the church which the Franciscans built in 1730 the archaeologists cleared completely the remains of the magnificent crusader's basilica.
Plan of the various edifices
The church of the Annunciation stands over the extreme southern end of the ancient village. Having examined the site occupied by the church of 1730, the outline of the Crusader church became clearer. In the northern nave the Crusaders had left the rocky elevation of the grotto and between two pilasters had made a stairway to the shrine. The excavations of 1955 unveiled the plan of the Byzantine church. Orientated as that of the Crusaders, it had 3 naves, with a convent to the S and an atrium to the W. It was 40 m. in length. Delving under the Byzantine construction the franciscan archaeologists found plastered stones with signs and inscriptions, which certainly formed part of a preexisting building on the site.
The remains found under the byzantine construction led the Franciscn Archaeologists to conclude that prior to this period the Christians had already constructed a place of worship at this site. Excavations revealed also a primitive baptisimal font a mosaiced floor, and a flight of seven steps that led down towards the grotto. Next to the shrine, to the West of it, another cave transformed into a devotional site came to light.
The chapel/grotto of deacon Conon
This grotto, known as that of deacon Conon (from the name inscribed in a mosaic found here), yielded not only some graffiti on the walls but also decorated plaster. Four or six layers of plaster covered these walls. Fortunately in the third layer of plaster the archaeologists found a coin of the mid-IV century. The underlaying plaster then goes back to the primitive buildings on the site, always prior to the mid-IV century. The decorated plastered walls depicted flowers and plants which Frs Bagatti and Testa identified with an allegoralical representation of paradise, in this case of an anonymous martyr venerated at the site. A big lettered inscription on the wall, painted in red, reads: "Lord, Christ, help your servant Valeria...and give the palm to pain...Amen". Other graffiti bear witness to the christian devotion pre-dating the crusaders. One of them reads "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, help Geno and Elpisius, Achille, Elpidius, Paul, Antonis..servants of Jesus".
The mosaic of deacon Conon
Furthermore, architectural elements and decorations suppose the construction of a "public" building, which the archaeologists identify with a church-synagogue. Among these architectural remains the archaeologists found various graffiti and among them one of special interest. Scratched on the base of a column appeared the greek characters XE MAPIA (read: Ch(air)e Maria). Translated as: "Hail Mary". Recalling the angel's greeting to the Virgin, this inscription is the oldest of its kind known to us. It was written before the Council of Ephesus (431) where devotion to Mary received its first universal impulse. Other graffiti, all jelously conserved at the adjacent museum, confirm the Marian nature of the shrine. One in armenian reads "beautiful girl" (referred to Mary) and another one in greek reads "on the holy site of M(ary) I have writen".
Design of the base of the column
It might be interesting to see a design of the primitive structure (church-synagogue) built on the site and also, thanks to this design by E. Alliata ofm from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, understand how the devout pilgrim could have engraved this phrase on the base of the column.
Design of the hypothetical construction of the church-synagogue
THE BYZANTINE CHURCH
The byzantines built a church on the site on a west-east axis, with three aisles and a porch (atrium). To the south there was a small residence. The central aisle measured 19.60 metres (outside) and was 8 m. wide. This building remained in use from the 6th to the 12th century, though it was damaged and repaired several times. In other words, it finally disappeared only when the Crusaders replaced it with another structure, just as it in turn had displaced the earlier Judaeo-Christian structure.
THE CRUSADER BASILICA
The Russian abbot Daniel, who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1106-1107, found at Nazareth "a large, high church with three altars." This is the magnificent Crusader basilica erected by Tancred, prince of Galilee. He also endowed it with beautiful, costly vestments, as William of Tyre (1096-1184) had noted. This building followed the lines of the Byzantine structure but was of much more generous proportions. It was 76 m. Iong and 30 wide. In fact, it was bigger than the modern basilica, as is evident from the remains which have been incorporated into the latter or protrude therefrom.
Remains of the Crusader Church
It was to adorn this basilica that the magnificent capitals, already mentioned, were fashioned, together with other pieces of sculpture found within the town limits. The capitals, however, were never set in place. They were rediscovered in all their original freshness and beauty, perfectly preserved from the ravages of time and climate which have affected so many other medieval monuments.
he beautiful Crusaders capitals
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