The excavation at Horbat Zekharya yielded a previously unknown Islamic-period settlement, dating mainly from the Abbasid and Fatimid periods. The site was recorded in the Survey of Western Palestine as Nebi Zakariya (Conder and Kitchener 1880: Sheet XIV). The name of the site refers to a shrine (maqām) where a religious figure—the father of John the Baptist, in this case—was venerated by the local Muslim population. The structure of the shrine was described by Conder and Kitchener (1882:358) as “a little kubbeh”, or a small cubical shrine.
The site is located on a hilltop, and is one of a cluster of sites (e.g., Horbat Kelah) in the Modi‘in hills, which are straddled from the north and south by ancient roads that led from the coastal plain toward Jerusalem. Previous surveys and excavations near the site yielded two Early Roman burial caves (Re’em 2008) and a Late Roman burial cave (Clermont-Ganneau 1896:354–358; Shavit 2014: Site 149) to its north, and even more substantial remains from the Byzantine period. The latter include a reservoir and monastic cells with incised crosses and Christian graffiti to the north of the site (Shavit 2014: Sites 147, 148); a large inscribed cruciform baptisterium at Horbat Kelkh (Guérin 1875:53; Conder and Kitchener 1882:321–322; Bagatti 2002:205–206; the item was looted and has been recently located by U. Rothstein and A.S. Tendler and was consigned to the National Treasury); and a rural monastery to its west, recently excavated by D. Masarwa (Permit No. A-7765]). These remains point to an extensive Christian settlement in the area and led to the assumption that the site comprised primarily Byzantine-period remains (e.g., Re’em 2008; Shachar 2017).
The excavation uncovered approximately 3500 square meters of a planned, well-constructed settlement established during the Abbasid period. The excavation covered only a segment of this settlement, which continues in all directions beyond the excavated areas. The architectural remains include large, attached buildings—often with shared walls—internally divided into 63 identifiable units (Fig. 2). These buildings were adorned with mosaic floors (Fig. 3) and exhibit square arch bases (Fig. 4). Also uncovered were three olive presses (Fig. 5), storerooms, a kiln (Fig. 6) and cisterns (Fig. 7), as well as rich assemblages of small finds.
Three strata (IV–II) were identified in the settlement remains, dating from the Abbasid through the Mamluk periods; at the end of the Mamluk period and the beginning of the Ottoman period, the site served as a burial ground (Stratum I).
Stratum IV (Abbasid period). The earliest construction phase of most of the buildings is ascribed to the ninth century CE. The buildings were founded directly on the bedrock, and no earlier strata were discovered. The construction of buildings was gradual, and buildings changed throughout the ninth and tenth centuries CE, into the Fatimid period. The walls of the buildings were constructed of large ashlars bound by a thin layer of mortar. The inner face of the walls was filled with small stones and mortar and coated with white plaster (Fig. 8). The floors of the buildings were made of either packed earth mixed with crushed chalk, white mosaic or flagstones. Most of the buildings had square arch bases, and some had external buttresses. In some cases, this was part of the original construction; in others the arches and buttresses were added in subsequent phases to strengthen the buildings, perhaps following earthquakes.
Stratum III (Fatimid and Crusader periods). During the eleventh century CE, collapsed buildings were rebuilt and new buildings were constructed above a massive collapse layer which may be attributed to the two earthquakes of 1033 and 1068 CE (Fig. 5). A minority of the buildings continued to function during the Crusader period (twelfth century CE).
Stratum II (Ayyubid and Mamluk periods). A few buildings were established during thirteenth and fourteenth centuries CE. One building with a courtyard and additional fragmental building remains were found (Fig. 9). The population density in this part of the site seems to have declined during this period.
Stratum I (end of Mamluk period–beginning of Ottoman period). This stratum comprises a cemetery dated to the late fifteenth century CE: 64 cist tombs installed within the remains of earlier strata (Fig. 10). The tombs were covered with stone slabs, and their walls were either lined with stones or were adjacent to wall foundations from the earlier structures. The deceased were interred in the tombs in an east–west orientation, with their heads towards the west.
This previously unknown settlement uncovered at Horbat Zekharya, which dates mainly from the Abbasid and Fatimid periods, greatly enriches our knowledge of the settlement patterns of Modi‘in hills during these periods. Previous research described the sparsity of settlement in this area during these periods (Kedar 2014:34); however, our finds negate this observation. Both the architecture and the small finds attest to a large and prosperous community. Architectural parallels can be found in the contemporary, albeit distant, settlement uncovered at Mishmar David (Yannai 2014). The religious identity of the inhabitants of the settlement during the Early Islamic period remains unclear. Judging by the Byzantine-period remains near the site that point to a Christian population in the area, the inhabitants may have been Christians, but there is no conclusive evidence to determine if they were Christians or Muslims. It is also possible that the settlement was heterogeneous.