Regards from the past: An excavation project took place at Horkania Fortress, an isolated site in the Judean Desert, following increasing activity by antiquities robbers there - during which an ancient Greek inscription was discovered, a paraphrase of Psalm 86.
Dr. Oren Gutfeld and Michal Haber of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem launched the first-ever scientific excavation season at the Horcania Fortress, during which they uncovered the rare Greek inscription from the Byzantine period.
The Horqania Fortress is located on an isolated dome, which dominates its surroundings about 250 meters above the surface of the Horqania Valley, about 17 km southeast of Jerusalem and 8 km southwest of Qumran. Apart from a number of tests and surveys conducted at the site over the years, no organized scientific archaeological excavation has yet been conducted there. Some of the reasons for this are: location of the site in an IDF firing zone, challenging approach and complex logistics.
Oren Gutfeld (left), and Yusuf Abu-Amaria, a member of the Herodion National Park conservation team, with the key stone on it engraved with a cross in the medallion in the center of the stone, photo: Michal Haber, Hebrew University
Despite the difficulties, last May a delegation headed by Dr. Oren Gutfeld and Michal Haber on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in cooperation with Carson-Newman University (Jefferson City, Tennessee) and the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery organization, excavated the site for four weeks.
Michal Haber, co-director of the excavation, photo: Oren Gutfeld, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Lines of text topped by a cross
The expedition focused on two main excavation areas, with fragments of Second Temple fortifications exposed at the southwestern end of the summit, including a strong wall and a watchtower.
Dr. Oren Gutfeld explained: "In the fortifications we notice architectural elements reminiscent of the picture at Herodium, as part of Herod's vision of construction, albeit on a smaller scale. It is possible that the work was done even by the same engineers and builders. It's no coincidence that we call Horcania 'Herodium's little sister.'"
The complete Greek inscription discovered in the "Art Hall," paraphrasing a verse from the Psalms, photo: Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority
In the northwestern part of the mountain, the expedition removed a massive layer of collapsed building stones from the top floor into a hall in the basement of a large building. Along the inner walls of the hall, pillars (columns with a square outline) were incorporated opposite each other, suggesting that arches supported the ceiling and upper floor of the monastery did not survive.
During the excavation, a large masonry stone was discovered on the plaster floor of the hall lying on its side and on it, in red color, nine or ten lines of text topped by a cross. Haber and Gutfeld identified the Koina script, the language in which the New Testament was written, but turned to their colleague, epigrapher Dr. Avner Aker of Bar-Ilan University, to decipher. An initial reading (the end of the text is illegible) indicates that this is a paraphrase of Psalm chapter 86, "A Prayer to David."
While the original lines are: "Pray unto the uncle of the Teh-Jehovah your ear, An'ani Ka'i-'An'i and Avi'un A'ni: May I preserve my soul...", this is how the version from Horkania is written:
† Ἰ(η)σοῦ Χ(ριστ)ὲ Yazo Christo†
φύλαξ<ο>ν με ὅτι kept my soul[π]τ<ω>χὸς (καὶ) For poor and pauper[π]έν
[ης] <εἰ>μὶ <ἐ>γώ
Dr. Aker said: "This is one of the most common psalms in Christian liturgy in antiquity. Apparently, one of the monks painted graffiti of the cross on the wall, and underneath it he wrote a prayer that he knew well."
Later, Aker described that: "According to the style of writing, the inscription is dated no later than the first half of the sixth century CE." He went on to state that: "Several grammatical errors made in the transcription indicate that the writer did not speak Greek as his mother tongue, but was a native of the region, perhaps even a local, and spoke a Semitic language."
Another inscription was uncovered beneath the collapse layer in the hall, also of a building stone, but its reading has not yet been completed. According to Haber: "The exception of artifacts in the historical and archaeological record is of great importance, as are the inscriptions. It should be emphasized that these inscriptions are actually the first to be discovered in an orderly stratigraphic excavation documented at the site. We are familiar with pieces of papyri from the early 50s, some of which reached the antiquities market and some were found at the site itself, but in both cases their exact origin is unknown."
"Race against time"
Later in the excavation in the hall, the expedition discovered a tiny whole gold ring, only about 1 cm in diameter, suitable for a boy or girl. The ring is set in oval turquoise stone and has an inscription engraved in Kufit Arabic.
A gold and turquoise ring discovered in the excavations, bearing an inscription engraved in ancient Arabic, photo: Tal Rogovsky, Hebrew University
Dr. Nitzan Amitai-Price, an expert on Arabic epigraphy at the Hebrew University, noted that: "The style of writing corresponds to the beginning of the Islamic period, during the Umayyad Caliphate in the seventh and eighth centuries CE. There is a unique feature of the inscription, with the first and third words written in mirror script, which may indicate the use of the ring as a seal." She deciphered the miniature inscription: مَا شَاءَ ٱللَّٰهُ from Allah, or "This is how Allah wanted."
Regarding the origin of the turquoise stone embedded in the ring, Dr. Amitai-Price noted: "Turquoise during this period came from Khorasan or Nishapur, today in Iran. The route the ring took on its way to Horkania will remain a mystery, as will the identity of the person who wore it."
"That's what Allah wanted." Ring with miniature inscription, photo: Michal Haber, Hebrew University
Alongside the excitement and anticipation of the continuation of the excavations, Haber and Gutfeld appreciate the complexity: "We are aware that the excavations themselves may arouse the antiquities robbers, but they were before us and will probably continue after us. At the same time, the damage caused by robbery highlights the need for scientific excavations, certainly at a sensitive site such as Horkania. There, and at other sites, there is a kind of race against time."
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