Sunday, December 3, 2006

SHILOH, West Bank — Archaeologists claim to have uncovered one of the world’s first churches, built on a site thought once to have housed the Ark of the Covenant.

The site, emerging from the soil in the hills of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is richly decorated with brightly colored mosaics and inscriptions referring to Jesus Christ.

The church dates to the late 4th century, making it one of Christianity’s first formal places of worship, said the team, led by Yitzhak Magen and Yevgeny Aharonovitch.

“I can’t say for sure at the moment that it’s the very first church, but it’s certainly one of the first,” Mr. Aharonovitch said yesterday as he supervised a team carrying out the final excavations before winter. He said the site contained an extremely unusual inscription that referred to itself, Shiloh, by name.

“That is very rare and shows early Christians treated this as an ancient, holy place,” said Mr. Aharonovitch, 38. According to the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, was kept by the Israelites at Shiloh for several hundred years.

It was eventually moved to the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple that the Bible says King Solomon built around 1000 B.C. When the temple was sacked by the Babylonians 400 years later, the Ark was lost, prompting theories about whether it was hidden or destroyed.

The team at Shiloh is considering whether to dig under the mosaics that they have uncovered, in order to seek traces of the Ark.

“We have to decide whether to fix the mosaics here or take them to a museum,” Mr. Aharonovitch said.

Jewish residents in the modern settlement of Shiloh, which sits on a hill surrounded by Palestinian villages, want the team to keep digging.

David Rubin, a former mayor of Shiloh, said: “We believe that if they continue to dig they’ll reach back to the time of the Tabernacle,” referring to the place of worship where the Israelites housed the Ark.

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