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Concealed Silver Cross Testifies to the Religious Tolerance of the First Muslim Caliphate in the Seventh Century CE

WeightFrontBlackHipposA brass weight weighing approximately 160 grams discovered during the University’s archeological excavations at Hippos (Sussita) provides groundbreaking evidence of the delicate relations between the Christian residents of the city and its new Muslim rulers, beginning in the mid-seventh century CE. “More or less by chance, we discovered a stain covering the cross on the obverse of the weight. At first we were convinced that it was just dirt, but in fact the stain was made deliberately to conceal a cross, a Christian religious symbol used by the Christian population, so that they could continue to use the weight in their contacts with the new Muslim rulers. This is the first time that we have found a weight featuring this type of concealed element,” explained Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, who is the head of the Hippos-Sussita Excavations.

Sussita National Park, which is managed by the Nature and Parks Authority, has been excavated since 2000 by a delegation from the Institute of Archaeology. Hippos was founded in the second century CE, and later became a major city during the Roman and Byzantine periods. The city was demolished in a strong earthquake in 749, during the period when the Land of Israel was ruled by the first Islamic caliphate of the Umayyad administration, which occupied the country in the mid-seventh century.

Numerous historical testimonies show that at least during the early stages of Muslim rule, the new authorities showed a tolerant attitude toward the Christian population. Evidence of this can be found at Hippos itself, where at least seven churches have been uncovered, most of which continued to operate during this period without any signs of destruction. The massive basalt crosses found in the excavations, which decorated the tops of the church gables, were also clearly not seen as problematic by the Muslim rulers. However, the current much smaller finding, with a weight of just 160 grams, offers a groundbreaking and unique insight into the delicate fabric of relations between the new rulers and the longstanding residents – and in so doing, it also reveals a mysterious and exceptional story.

Using a metal detector, Dr. Bradley Bowlin discovered a small brass weight dating back to the Byzantine period in the northwest church compound at the site. Similar weights have been found in the past, and the object was passed on to Dr. Alexander Iermolin, director of the Conservation Laboratory at University’s Archaeological Institute, without any expectations of dramatic findings. A few weeks later, Dr. Iermolin contacted Dr. Eisenberg with some astonishing news. It emerged that a strange dark stain on the obverse of the weight was concealing a cross inlayed in silver; the other decorative elements on the weight were not concealed in this manner. “At first we thought this was random pollution. We intended to simply remove the dark stain and then continue the preservation process. But something smelled strange to us, so we decided to take time out,” Dr. Eisenberg recalls.

Instead of removing the unsightly stain, they forwarded the weight to Prof. Sariel Shalev, who is an expert in ancient metallurgy. After preparing a chemical profile of the weight and the stain, Prof. Shalev discovered that while the weight is made of brass, the stain was made from a metallic paste containing lead and tin. It was also obvious that the stain had been applied deliberately to the cross. “The melting temperature of the paste was around one-third the melting temperature of the other components of the weight. Since people during this period had a strong mastery of craftsmanship, it was clear that the stain had been made deliberately. Moreover, small sections of the silver cross had been chiseled out in order to ensure that the weight of the object remained unchanged. In short – there was no chance that the stain was coincidental,” Prof. Shalev concluded.

In the first stage, radiographic and ultrasonic imaging was undertaken at the laboratories of Soreq Nuclear Research Center by Dr. Izhak Hershko, Dr. Dan Breitman, and Dr. Zvia Shmul in order to explore the method used to produce the object and its unique decorations. After completing the laboratory tests, the object underwent a full conservation process, restoring it almost perfectly to the way it would have appeared some 1,500 years ago. The weight has dimensions of 44 x 43 mm and a precise weight of 158.9 grams. Its obverse bears a cross inlayed in silver placed on a semicircular base. Two Greek letters inlayed on the reverse of the weight specified its weight: six ounces. The decoration on the obverse of the weight represented the cross at Calvary or Golgotha, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem, while an arch and columns depicted the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the city.

The researchers now turned their attention to considering why someone went to the trouble of concealing the cross without defacing the weight itself, and while continuing to use it for its intended purpose. Dr. Eisenberg explains that, in all probability, the reason lies in the Muslim conquest of the country in the mid-seventh century CE. On the one hand, the Muslim rulers allowed the Christian residents to continue their religious worship. Nevertheless, their religious tolerance had its limits. “The cross was deliberately covered by church officials during the early Islamic period so that they could continue to use the weight, together with other weights in the official city weights set kept at the central church in Hippos, as well as in their contacts with the Muslim administration in Tiberias. This situation offers a precise illustration of the dividing line during this period of regime change between considerable religious and cultural freedom and the point when a Muslim official might be forced to hold an object displaying an overtly Christian emblem,” Dr. Eisenberg explained.

The study of the weight and its significance was published recently in the Israel Exploration Journal. The weight itself is on display at the Hecht Museum, as part of an exhibition entitled “Before the Earth Shook: The Ancient City of Hippos-Sussita Emerges.”