During September–October 2003 a salvage excavation was conducted following the construction of the security fence along the separation line, next to the Arab es-Sawahira neighborhood in Jerusalem (Permit No. 3994; map ref. NIG 22470/62860; OIG 14770/12860). The excavation, on behalf of the Antiquities Authority and financed by the Ministry of Defense, was directed by H. Barbé and Y. Zelinger, with the assistance of R. Lewis and Y. Mizrahi (area supervision), Y. Nagar (physical anthropology), A. Hajian, T. Slutzkaya and V. Pirsky (surveying and drafting), T. Sagiv (photography), R. Abu Diab and H. Finkel (mosaic conservation), N. Davidov (digital photography), R. Abu Khalaf (administration), O. Raviv (stone restoration), R. Gat (pottery restoration), N. Ze’evi (pottery drawing), C. Amit (studio photography), O. Shorr (glass restoration) and L. Kupershmidt (metallurgical laboratory).
The site is located on the lower eastern slope of a high hill east of Nahal Qidron. The construction of the separation fence severely damaged the antiquities, yet upon completion of the excavation the remains were identified as a monastery, which occupied an area of c. 1.5 dunam (35 × 50 m) and was dated to the Byzantine period. The site had been surveyed in the past (A. Kloner, Survey of Jeruaslem – The Southern Sector: Site 88, Jerusalem 2001), but was not identified as a monastery. Three areas were opened in the region most severely destroyed, in the southwestern area that was not damaged and in the crypt, in the northern courtyard.
The monastery was established as a closed rectangular unit, oriented northwest–southeast and enclosed within a massive wall on its four sides (W100, W108, W110, W205; Fig. 1). Rooms were built adjacent to the exterior walls and several courtyards shared the center of the compound. The southern courtyard was badly damaged; the rooms surrounding it contained industrial installations identified as an oil press, stables (?), water installations and the base of a flour mill. A church (9 × 20 m) was exposed in the northern part of the monastery. It was divided into two rooms whose floors were decorated with a colorful mosaic, which only survived in parts. An irregular section of mosaic (3 sq m) was preserved in the hall of the church, with images of a deer and an octopus (Fig. 2). To its west was another hall (9 × 10 m; Fig. 3) that served as a narthex. The apse in the east of the church was survived by hewn foundations and the negative of stones. A plastered water channel that probably led to an adjacent cistern, which was located beyond the limits of the excavation, was built next to the northern wall of the compound. South of the church was a courtyard surrounded by columns, whose floor and some of the column bases were bedrock hewn. A water cistern in the courtyard, which was part of the monastery’s system for storing water, is still being used today by the residents of neighborhood.
Three entrances to burial crypts were found in the center of the courtyard with columns. Each entry was covered with square stone slab that was leveled with the courtyard’s floor (Fig. 4). The oldest tomb was accessed by a staircase (depth 3 m) that led to the burial chamber (L3001; 3 × 3 m), wherein three burial troughs with headrests were located. Two of the troughs were rock-cut arcosolia and the third was a simple cist grave. A Maltese cross in red paint was drawn on the western wall of the tomb. It was rubbed out with vertical and horizontal scratches, presumably by Muslims. To the south was another hewn tomb that was reached by way of a staircase (depth 2.5 m). A sunken circle in the front contained apparently a cross, which was chiseled off in a later period (Fig. 5). The burial chamber (L3000; 2.5 × 3.5 m) consisted of three tombs. The first was hewn in the southern wall and subsequently two more tombs were cut in the floor. The tombs had headrests and the poorly preserved bones of the deceased were found in situ. Entrance into the northern tomb was by way of a rectangular shaft that opened into a burial chamber (L3005; 3.5 × 3.5 m), which contained four hewn and plastered burial troughs and a fifth burial that was disturbed. A headrest was in each of the troughs, but no bones were preserved in any of them. A hewn doorway in the northwestern corner of the tomb accessed another burial chamber (L3002, L3004; 3.0 × 6.5 m). Animal and human bones were scattered along its southern end and in the northern trough (L3006) was the skeleton of a child and a few late (Mamluk period?) potsherds. Remains of a primary burial were not found, nor were there any potsherds from the Byzantine period; therefore, it should be ascribed to a secondary usage of the tomb in a later period. The ceiling of the chamber collapsed, which made it impossible to determine if another entrance into the room existed. Rock-cut passages between the chambers indicate activities of grave robbers in antiquity.
A long staircase was built in the east of the courtyard, leading outside of the monastery compound to a subterranean room (L1108; 2 × 4 m) covered with a barrel vault (at least 3.5 m high; Fig. 6). The chamber had two entrances. The northern one was filled with soil and stones, and the southern one was blocked by a stone slab and led, via two descending steps, into a burial chamber (4 × 5 m) that comprised eight troughs, four on each side. The tomb was well preserved and probably not plundered in the past. An initial examination had shown that the deceased were interred one atop the other, in their clothes. Due to time constraints the tomb was not excavated; after the completion of its documentation it was covered over.
The monastery was part of the sequence of Byzantine monasteries that encircled Jerusalem. Information is still insufficient to enable its identification with one of the known monasteries from the historical literature, although several suggestions have been offered.