Early Christian chapel found in jail compound

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The Independent Online

Biblical Armageddon - where St John the Divine (Revelation 16:16) prophesied the war to end all wars, is now the high-security prison of Megiddo, where the Israelis send the hardest Palestinian cases.

Now Israeli archaeologists say that under the concrete fortress dominating the road north from Tel Aviv they have unearthed one of the earliest known Christian chapels, within the prison compound. A mosaic floor, inscribed with an ornate Greek dedication to "the God Jesus Christ," was discovered during ground-clearing for a new wing. The chapel is believed to date to the late third century or early fourth, when Christian worship was still outlawed under the Holy Land's Roman occupiers.

Uzi Da'ari, a Haifa University expert on early Christianity, suggested yesterday that the chapel might have been a clandestine prayer room within a larger building. All the evidence pointed to the years before Emperor Constantine the Great legalised Christianity in AD313 and moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium.

Constantine, Mr Da'ari explained, established a layout that has characterised church design ever since, including an east-facing apse and a high altar. "You don't find any of these elements in the Megiddo building," he said. "One inscription talks about a table, not an altar. The style and atmosphere are quite different from anything we know in the churches Constantine built here."

Yotam Tefer, who directed the dig for the Israel Antiquities Authority, speculated that the table might have been used for a ritual meal commemorating the Last Supper. Leah Di Segni, a Jerusalem professor who translated the inscriptions, confirmed that both the wording and the lettering pointed to a period before Byzantium. According to Israeli law, all construction has to stop when ancient remains are located and archaeologists must be given time to investigate.

About 50 long-term prisoners worked with them to clear the floor, which measures 33ft by 18ft. They found three other inscriptions and a medallion decorated with a pair of fish. One inscription was dedicated to Gaianus, a Roman officer who paid for the mosaics out of his own pocket. A second commemorated four women, Primilia, Kiraka, Dorothea and Crista; while a third praised "God-loving" Akeftos, who donated the table as a memorial to Jesus.

Researchers also found jars and cooking pots, as well as geometric frescos.

Mr Tefer said the prisoners were "very excited" and started asking questions once they realised what was being done.

Israel has still not decided what to do with the site. The prison service says it needs a new wing and wants the mosaic floor moved elsewhere. The archaeologists want it to stay where it is, perhaps with a landscaped visitors' area, but that would mean rerouting the prison wall.

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