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A visit to Samaria
May 19th, 2005


Shiloh is well known because of Samuel’s deeds which are vividly recounted in Scripture. The place was much frequented while the Ark of the Covenant was kept there, but thereafter it declined. The excavations conducted by Danish archeologists in 1926 and 1929 have shown that the site was inhabited also in the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Arab periods. Within the scope of the present book I shall illustrate only the remains of the Byzantine period, when Christians dwelt here.

Tel Shiloh
Modern Synagogue

The Church. The first historical notice pertaining to Christianity in this place is due to St. Jerome. In a letter to Paula and Eustochius, dated about 392-393, after a description of the holy places, he writes: “With Christ at our side we shall pass through Shiloh and Bethel and through other places where churches have been built like so many banners of the Lord’s victories” (Ep. 46,13, PL 22, 492). Since at this time there was certainly a church at Bethel, as is known from other sources, it seems that Jerome, with this rather emphatic sentence, was really relating an historical fact. However, he does not state that the church was erected over the exact place of the old Jewish cult.
The same author twice describes the altar of the Jews as “overthrown” (Ep. 108,13, PL 22, 888; In Sophoniam I, 15/16, CCSL 76A, 673); and, taking his words literally, some scholars have maintained that Shiloh was uninhabited at this time. But this does not seem to be Jerome’s meaning. He wished simply to show the “victory” of Christianity over Judaism, namely, of the New Testament over the Old.
Unlike what happened in Bethel, the official church of Jerusalem did not schedule an annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, and no such festival is mentioned in the Calendar of the church of Jerusalem. On the contrary, Samuel’s feast was held on August 20 in the village of Masephta (Mizpah: Garitte, Calendrier, 307). Even the pilgrims seemingly did not visit Shiloh, for the only one that mentions its name – the sixth-century pilgrim Theodosius (ch. 4, CCSL 175, 116) – wrongly locates it mid-way between Jerusalem and Emmaus, namely, at Cariathiarim. The mistaken identification lasted for centuries, as appears, for example, on the Florentine map of 1300, which places Shiloh at Nebi Samwil where the tomb of Samuel is found (Röhricht, ZDPV 14 [1991], 8-11). The mosaic map of Madaba wrongly locates Shiloh east of Shechem, omitting to picture the church.

The Moslem Period. In 638 the Moslems conquered Palestine and gradually transformed the country, converting the other peoples to the Islamic faith. This fate also befell Shiloh. Moslem pilgrims to Shiloh mention a mosque called es-Sekineh where the memory of the deeds of Jacob and Joseph was revered. The earliest source, el-Harawi, who visited the country in 1173 when it was occupied by the Crusaders; Yaqut, who wrote in 1225, and al-Harawî, who wrote in 1308 (Marmardji, Textes, 94-95), all say much the same. We quote from the first : “Saylûn is the village of the mosque As-Sukaynah where the stone of the Table is found. However, the truth is that the Table came down in the church of Íihyawn. I heard that Jacob lived in Saylûn and that Joseph came out of there with his brothers. The well into which he was thrown is between Sinjil and Nablus, to the right of the road. It is the most genuine of what has been said.”
In conclusion, in the Middle Ages there was the village which purported to preserve the Table of the Covenant which others said was kept in the Church on Sion, confusing it with the table of Jesus’ Last Supper (Le Strange, Palestine under the Moslems, 212). Since the holy place had become Moslem, Christians no longer visited it and it was forgotten until recent times.
The memory of the Table endured among the locals, and Clermont-Ganneau was told of it on a visit here in 1874 (ARP II, 305). The erection of a mosque in Shiloh reveals that the population had embraced Islam. There is no further talk of churches.

View from Tel Shiloh

The Synagogue and the Mosques. The literary sources are better understood through a visit to the spot. When the excavations began, all that was known was the mosque or Weli Yetaim, to the north, with its roof still intact, and whose structure utilizes ancient columns and capitals taken from ruined buildings and also other remains, among them two small pillars from a church which adorn the sides of the mihrab. Today the mosque is in the same state, with well-preserved walls. To the south there was a building called Jami‘ es-Sittin (“The mosque of the Sixty”), at the foot of the hill, with escarped walls and a carved lintel placed over the door: it is decorated with a central amphora flanked by wreaths, and it has been drawn and photographed many times. The building contains also other ancient remains; it is believed to have been a synagogue. Soundings made after 1967 have revealed a beautiful room to the west, built of dressed stones and twice plastered with white lime, with a niche facing south, namely, toward Jerusalem. Column shafts and classic capitals have also been unearthed. These elements belong to an ancient synagogue. Since 1967, the lintel that was placed on the north door has been removed. A pillar from a church or a synagogue is encased in the wall over the west door – or window.

Weli Yetin
Weli Yetin (interior)
Mosaic detail
Weli Sittin
Weli Sittin

The basilica. When Kjaer’s report was published, the building had not yet been completely excavated. Nevertheless, the excavator stated that it was “a true basilica,” at least in its proportions. Judging from the south wall which can still be examined (it is made of ashlars laid in courses 44 and 25 cm high), the complete length of the basilica and atrium is 40 meters. The width, also measured externally, is 14.10 m, but a 6.40 m wide room adjoins the building on the south side.
The church had three naves, and 12 bases and 2 beautiful Corinthian capitals (62 cm high and 72-61 cm wide) are preserved. Their appearance recalls the well-known fourth-century style, with separate leaves revealing the ribbing of the back leaves, and a smooth leaf under the corner. They may be considered fourth-century work, and thus incline us think that this church, at least in its early stage, is the one seen by St. Jerome. The basilica was covered with rafters as indicated by the many fragments of tiles scattered in the area.

External view
North aisle
Central nave
South nave
Mosaic with cross
Mosaic with star
Mosaic with cross

The floor, only partly preserved, is in mosaic (now both this and the monastery church floor are covered with earth). The carpet features intertwining circles and rhombs enclosing broken spots that were repaired in antiquity. I am inclined to believe that within there were figures destroyed during the iconoclastic movement. If this is the case, the liturgical life of the church must have lasted until the eighth century. An inscription uncovered in the narthex reads:

That is, “O Lord, remember for good your servant Zacharias and the writer.” Its editor, J. Starr (BASOR 57 [1935], 26-27), notes that the phrase ei˙ß aÓgaqa/ is nothing but the translation of the Aramaic dekir letab commonly used in the synagogues of Palestine. This draws attention on the relations between Christians and Jews in the fourth-sixth centuries, when seemingly this inscription was written and the church was paved with these mosaics. The synagogue, which has now been partially exposed, with the decorated lintel and a recess in the wall for the Torah scrolls, according to the custom inaugurated in the third-fourth centuries, and evidently lasting for some centuries afterward, attests that the Jewish cult building functioned at the same time as the church. Jews and Christians thus lived together in the village. The presence of Jews in their ancient home land in the fifth century inclines us to believe that they had remained there continuously, and that the Christians there were of Jewish extraction. This would explain the use of the Aramaic idiom.

Inscription in the nartex of the basilica

In the Madaba Mosaic Map

Shiloh where the ark stayed (external link)

Other links:

Tel Shilo (external link)

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Created/updated: Thursday, May 26, 2005 by J. Abela / E. Alliata / A. Sobkowski
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