A small prayer box from the Byzantine era was discovered in Jerusalem during archaeological excavations, proving that Christians have in fact been making pilgrimage to and living in the holy city for centuries.
The miniature box, measuring 2.2 by 1.6 cm., is made of animal bone and is adorned with a cross. It was uncovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority during excavations near the City of David, located in the Walls around Jerusalem National Park.
The inside of the box has drawings of two figures (icons) on a background lined with gold leaf. The bone used to make it appears to have been taken from a large animal (possibly a steer, camel or horse). To open the box, it slides open and includes two flat parts, each of which bears a colored drawing.
“The use of icons for prayer outside the church is a phenomenon known in the Christian world already in the 5th century CE,” said Yana Tchekhanovets, director of the excavation together with Dr. Doron Ben-Ami of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “However, the painted holy relics that date to the Byzantine period which were discovered here, in the Holy Land, are extremely rare, thus making this an exceptionally important discovery. Folding icons for personal use are known to this day in modern Christendom, especially in the East.”
The box was discovered intact except for a small crack. It was hermetically sealed which ensured its preservation.
The icon on the box is an image of a bearded man against a gold background. The face was only partially preserved and shows its general shape, a dark shade of hair and the left eye. The image bears a garment of a white cloak with a pink spot located on its right shoulder. On the inside of the box’s lid is a shape of a smaller figure, probably female, draped in a blue garment, against a gold background.
“Because of the poor state of preservation of the drawings in the box any attempt at identifying the figureswould almost certainly be within the realm of conjecture,” Tchekhanovets said. “There are several possibilities that can be suggested: if we assume that the drawings depicted are those of a man and women the obvious possibility then is Jesus and Mary. However, in the 6th and 7th centuries AD the number of saints venerated by the Christian church increased to many hundreds, two of which are probably portrayed in the drawings here.”
Excavations in this area in recent years have have uncovered evidence of the Byzantine settlement there including an administrative type building, a large farming terrace and a paved street. A series of plaster floors was discovered in the western part of the paved street. The box was discovered after the upper floor was dismantled.