Walk through the Christian quarter of Jerusalem's Old City and you'll see souvenir shops selling assorted varieties of small plastic Christian prayer boxes displaying miniature icons, usually Mary and Jesus, surrounded by a gold halo. Not far from those shops, Israeli archaeologists have discovered what may be the oldest miniature Byzantine prayer box to date, archaeologist Yana Tchekhanovets announced last week.
Of course, this object - from the 6th century CE - predates Islam.
The discovery - made by Tchekhanovets and fellow archaeologist Doron Ben-Ami about a year ago during an Israel Antiquities Authority excavation in the Givati parking lot across from the City of David - sheds light on art in ritual in Byzantine-era Jerusalem.
The box, discovered in the Byzantine strata (324-838 C.E.) in the plaster between two floor tiles, is approximately half the size of a matchbox: 2.2 centimeters by 1.6 centimeters, and a few millimeters high. The inside contains delicate and partially erased drawings of Christian icons. With a little effort it is possible to discern a blurred feminine face and, on the bottom, a clearer male face. The colors used to make the icons have survived and shades of red, blue, brown and white are detectable, all against a delicate gold background.
"Never before have we held such an object in hand," said Tchekhanovets, who announced the discovery at an archaeology conference held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in conjunction with the Israel Antiquities Authority. "It's very exciting that we uncovered it," she said.
The big question revolves around the identity of the two icons in the prayer box. The likely answer, says Tchekhanovets, is that they are Jesus and Mary, but it is certainly possible that they could be other local saints who flourished in that era. Like the prayer boxes sold today in souvenir shops, its Byzantine predecessor was used as a personal ritual object that could be taken anywhere. When worshipers wanted to pray, they would open the box and pray before the icons, and it would function as a miniature church.
And isn't it interesting that it was found in the City of David archaeological dig? Anti-Zionists like to charge that Israel's archaeology, and City of David in particular, is politically-motivated and meant only to find Jewish objects. Yet these hateful Zionists seem quite proud to have discovered a Christian relic.
And those Zionist archaeologists find and publicize Islamic-era finds all the time as well.