In January 2019, a salvage excavation was conducted in the yard of a private residence on the corner of Shevil Ha-Homa and Derekh ‘En Kerem in the neighborhood of ‘En Karem in Jerusalem (Permit No. A-8447; map. ref. 215446–56/630562–75; Fig. 1), following damage to antiquities. The excavation, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and financed by Even Ami – Civil Engineering LTD, was directed by D. Yeger with the assistance of N. Nehama (administration), S. Halevi (photogrammetry), O. Rose (drafting), C. Amit (studio photography) and K. Arbiv, West Jerusalem District Archeologist.
During the Byzantine period (fifth–sixth centuries CE), two churches were built in ‘En Kerem, c. 5 km southwest of the Old City, on the western slope of Mount Ora: one was dedicated to John the Baptist and the other to the virgin Mary. The two ruined Byzantine churches were rebuilt in the early Crusader period, between 1105 and 1108 at the latest. The Church of St. John Ba-Harim, also called the Church of John the Baptist, was built on the traditional site of the house of Zachariah and Elizabeth, where John was born. The Abbey Church of St. John in the Woods, also called the Church of the Visitation, marks the site of a cave to which Elizabeth fled with John, miraculously hiding him from King Herod’s soldiers. Following the conquest of Saladin (1187 CE), the monks and the villagers were expelled, and the churches deteriorated. However, according to pilgrims’ descriptions from that period, the churches were not demolished, as was the case with other Christian sites in and around Jerusalem (Pringle 1993:39–45). During the Mamluk period, a Muslim population settled around the churches. An important impetus for this settlement was the Abu Madyan endowment, one of the most important charitable trusts of Jerusalem’s Maghrebi Muslims. In the fourteenth century CE, Abu Madyan bought large land tracts in the area, and in 1320 he dedicated the income from these properties to maintaining a zawiya (an Islamic religious structure) for the benefit of pilgrims from the Maghreb visiting Jerusalem. The properties included cultivated and uncultivated land, built and ruined structures, a garden, ancient fruit and olive orchards irrigated by the local spring, as well as a mosque and a cemetery (Weigert 1990). The Ottoman census of 1595 noted that the villagers cultivated wheat, barley, vineyards and olives, raised goats and bees and grew summer crops (sorghum, melons, beans and vegetables; Hütteroth and Abdulfattah 1977:118).
Surveys and salvage excavations in the village yielded building remains and evidence of agricultural activity dating from the First Temple period (ninth–sixth centuries BCE) to the Ottoman period (sixteenth–twentieth centuries CE; Kloner 2001: Sites 155–161; Be’eri 2012; Oz 2014; Landes-Nagar 2017). Miqwa’ot (ritual baths) dating from the Second Temple period (first century BCE–first century CE) were uncovered on the grounds of the Church of St. John Ba-Harim, c. 50 m east of the excavation area (Saller 1946).
In the current excavation, an earthen section was cleaned and documented, revealing the remains of two vaults from the Middle Ages (twelfth–sixteenth centuries CE), which went out of use in the early Ottoman period (sixteenth–eighteenth centuries CE). Due to safety restrictions, the fill in the vaults was not excavated, but a few sherds were retrieved from the earthen section.
The two vaults (L4, L5; max. height 2 m, width 2.5 m; Fig. 2), built along an east–west axis, have an arched profile; they were founded on the bedrock and constructed of dressed fieldstones and stone slabs bonded with grayish-white bonding material containing black and white grits. Two types of earthen fill were identified in the eastern volt (L4): brown-reddish terra-rossa soil (L2; thickness 1 m), which covered the bedrock, and above it light brown–yellowish soil (L3; thickness 1 m) that extended up to the top of the vault. Between the two layers of fill was a surface of small fieldstones (L7). A fill of brown-reddish terra-rossa soil (L6) was discerned in the western volt (L5). The few potsherds (not drawn) that were retrieved from the later fill (L3) Vault 4 included ‘Gaza’ jar sherds and a Handmade Geometric Ware bowl, which indicates that the vault went out of use during the Ottoman period. A fragment of worked mother-of-pearl seashell (Pinctada margaritifera; Fig. 3) was found in topsoil; such shells were often embedded in souvenirs sold to Christian pilgrims at the end of the nineteenth century CE (Ktalav 2016:80).
Vaults of similar style and building technique were a common ceilings feature in Palestine during the Middle Ages (twelfth–fifteenth centuries CE; Fuchs 1999:84). Despite the meager archaeological finds from the excavation, one can cautiously propose that the vaults were built at the earliest in the Mamluk period (thirteenth–fifteenth centuries) and went out of use during the Ottoman period. The volts corroborate the historical evidence of the Abu Madyan endowment and previous the archaeological finds (Landes-Nagar 2017
) that indicate that the settlement at the site was renewed during the Mamluk period near the ruined Crusader churches. The location of the excavation site near the Church of St. John Ba-Harim explains the presence of the worked seashell, a common component in pilgrim souvenirs.
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