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Cat and mouse game reveals ancient Holy Land church, possible prophet's grave

posted 2 Feb 2011, 06:09 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 2 Feb 2011, 06:12 ]

A chase after Palestinian antiquities robbers leads to the discovery of an ancient church near Jerusalem, Israeli authorities say.

HORBAT MIDRAS, ISRAEL (FEBRUARY 2, 2011) REUTERS - A fortuitous chase after grave robbers has led to the discovery of an ancient church outside of Jerusalem and what may be the burial site of the biblical prophet Zechariah, Israeli authorities said on Wednesday (February 2).

The hill-top church was destroyed by an earthquake some 1,300 years ago and lay hidden underground until detectives from Israel's Antiquities Authority pursuing a gang of antiquity

thieves noticed an elaborate doorpost protruding from the earth.

The robbers got away -- they were caught a few months later at a site nearby -- but after weeks of digging, archaeologists unveiled the remains of the church. It was about the size of a basketball court, and contained fallen marble pillars and a nearly pristine 10-metre long mosaic floor.

"After excavating at this site we were able to discover that there is an ancient Byzantine church, magnificent very special church", said deputy director of the Antiquities theft Prevention unit.

The unit's team spends much of its time in a never-ending cat and mouse game with antiquity thieves. They spend nights laying in ambushes and set up stings for nefarious antiquities dealers.

Much of the time the marauders manage to vandalize or destroy archeological ruins before Bartura's unit finds them.

But in this case, he said, a group of Palestinians from the West Bank who were plundering for ancient coins revealed to them the location of the lost church some 40 kilometres south of Jerusalem.

"We can say today that we are very happy that this site was excavated archeologically, and in a scientific manner and not by the looters because now we can preserve and save all the special finds that you see here behind me," Bartura said.

He added that the church, which was used between the 5th the 7th centuries, was a unique discovery because of its size and good condition.

"Such a magnificent building, such a magnificent public structure is not something common. We have many finds of Byzantine churches all over the country, most of them are no where near the... you can find nothing near the mosaic floor that we found here, nothing near the size of the church that we found here," he said.

Like many ancient structures, it was built into an even older foundation that dates back to the Roman empire and the period of the second Jewish temple. It includes a subterranean complex of caves and tunnels used by Jewish rebels fighting the Romans in the famous Bar Kokhba revolt in 132 AD.

Beneath the church's alter is a burial chamber that a number of experts, referencing Christian sources including the ancient diagram called the Madaba Map, said may have been for the

prophet Zechariah.

Israel's Antiquities Authority said the claim was not conclusive and still being studied.