Beit Loya - the lost city

Beit Loya is named after an Arab location which was called Khirbet Beit-Leyi (meaning the ruin of Beit Leyi). In Hebrew the site is called Beit Leyi (Leyi means cheek) or Beit Loya (Loya means funeral escort). Here is a diagram map of the site, with archaeological areas.


Warning: visiting this site is not without constraint and risk. First, it is only accessible via 4x4 vehicle through rocky hills and only at certain times of the week because it is located within a military zone. Second, the site is not really developed for tourism yet, and contains many cisterns, visible or hidden. A hand-written sign (in Hebrew) at the car park warns visitors that they are at their own risk ! Therefore, I would suggest to arrange such visit only through a Tour Guide, certified by the Ministry of Tourism.


Over 100 years of past excavation campaigns, the site has revealed an extensive city. Its past name is however unknown for certainty, because it is not proven by either a found inscription or by a historical record that would have helped find the name of a city in this region of the Judean Lowlands. The site is close to the southern part of this region, not far from Tel Lachish and Maresha. Beit Loya is not the only "lost cities" found in Israel, where the name has been lost in history, but it is one of the most spectacular ones with many things to see over a rather large area of about 75 dunams (about 18.5 acres). The city has mainly been occupied from the Hellenistic times until the Mameluke era so roughly over 1700 years. But other items were found dating from the Chalcolitic period (copper and stone age, some 8000 years ago) and from the Iron period (or Israelite period of the First Temple, about 3000 to 2500 years ago).


The name Leyi, also written Lehi, reminds of the name Lehi who was a prophet for the Mormon faith. According to the Book of Mormon, Lehi fled Jerusalem before it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and his Chaldean army in 586 BCE, and reached the Arabic Peninsula with his family. On the way, he settled for a while in the southern Judean Lowlands, precisely at this site that has retained his name 'Lehi' (or Leyi). As such Beit Loya is the third most sacred site for the Mormons, the two first ones being in Arabia and Yemen.


Let's start our virtual visit by following the path across areas B > M > C > Church > P.


AREA B - Oil Press and Mikveh

Close to the car park is located area B. It has been assessed to date from the Early Roman period because of the type of oil press (with weights and wooden screw) and a coin that was found of Agrippa II's reign.


All the area of the Judean Lowlands is made of soft limestone and chalk, and is covered with hand-made hewn oil presses of this kind. The interest here are the graffiti's of the menorah (the candelabrum used in the Temple service), which are different from the one found on the Arch of Titus in Rome. It is generally assumed that the people of the Temple hid the real menorah before the Romans took Jerusalem and burned its temple. These depictions are located at its entrance. Here below is one of them.

The other item of area B is the underground mikveh (ritual bath). The use of it was instituted at the beginning of the Second Temple era, probably at the time of the religious reform led by Ezra the Scribe. Because the First Temple had been destroyed, he brought the responsability of the divine service to all the Jewish people, not just to the Levite priests. Purification had to be performed by all, in certain times, by total immersion. The size and volume of these ritual baths had to follow certain rules to be "kosher". In the one of Beit Loya, there are also 7 steps down: 7 is a number associated with the dedication to God, like the 7th day called Shabbat, because the ritual bath is an operation to purify oneself before an act dedicated to God.

There were many communal ritual baths in Jewish cities of the Second Temple era, and also, for the richer, private smaller ones inside their own mansions.


AREA M: columbarium and stables

Most of important sites of the Judean Lowlands feature hand-hewn columbarium. In this chalky region, with poor quality soil, the main industries were the culture of olive trees to produce olive oil, and the breeding of doves (in columbarium) for 3 goals: 1- food, 2- cultic service (sacrifices at given festivals), 3- use of their feces for fertiliser. Beit Loya must have been a very important city because its main columbarium is the second in size in Israel, after the gigantic one found in nearby Maresha (the likely birth city of King Herod). The one in Beit Loya has 1100 niches for doves.


The south-eastern side of the columbarium was partially destroyed when a bell cave was built in this underground space. These man-hewn caves are called "bell caves" because they have been carved from top to bottom, with a single entrance from the top, thus given the shape of a bell. Bell caves were used in different ways such as quarries, granaries, storerooms, dovecotes, hideouts and more.

Above the area, excavations have found dwellings of the Mameluke era (ca. 13th-14th century CE). In the same area, were found stables under the ground. Presumably used by the same Mameluke farmers as shelter for their donkeys because the cave is low ceiling (1.80 m) and about 6 x 6 meters in size.

AREA C: chapel

In this area, the British archaeologist Macalister (early 20th century) has found a rock-hewn chapel. He dated it from the Byzantine era, from the 5th to the 8th century CE. It is probable that this small underground chapel was built at the beginning of the Byzantine settlement but, as the settlement grew in importance, a new larger church was built (see later below).


THE BYZANTINE CHURCH

The church was built at a later time of the Byzantine era, when the population of Beit Loya grew substancially.



By seeing at the richness of the mosaics in this church, we can assume that the city was rich, probably thanks to the commerce of olive oil and doves. The church is composed of 3 parts, as it is always the case in Byzantine ones: an atrium with, like always, a well for purification water, a narthex (the corridor section at the entrance of the prayer hall itself, where people who were not baptized Christians yet would wait outside), and the prayer hall or church itself, composed of 3 naves, with the central nave ending with an apse.


All the floors inside the church are covered with mosaics, either depicting scenes, animals, or inscriptions. One particular one represents a ship, maybe as an allegory to the first disciples of Jesus who were fishermen.


One of the mosaic inscriptions is shown below, and starts with the Greek letters KE IC XE, used with different colours than the rest. It is to put them in emphasis. They are the abbreviations of K(ύρι)E -- I(η)C(ού) -- Χ(ριστ)E, which means: Lord -- Jesus -- Christ.


At the time of the Mameluke era, all human figures depicted in these mosaics, as in the ship one, have been scratched off by Muslims because it is a sin for them to represent human figures at all. The site of the church has also been transformed into a Muslim cemetary as evidenced by the tombs in all the surrounding grounds.


AREA P - Mameluke village and Columbarium

On the southern side of area M, the area P has been similar in usage: an underground columbarium from the Second Temple era, followed above by Mameluke dwellings and buildings. Archaeologists have also found the base of a watchtower (dungeon) next to the columbarium.


Beit Loya is truly an attractive site with many areas to offer to visitors. The above areas are the main ones which have been found so far. The first excavations were led by the British Macalister from 1898, on behalf of the PEF (Palestine Exploration Fund). The latest excavations were led by Gutfeld from 2005 with the help of US Mormon-related institutions have lasted about 10 years.


As mentioned above, if you wish to visit this site, which is not so easy to access, I strongly advise you to hire a certified tour guide with a 4x4 vehicle to do so. Otherwise you may not find all the wonders that the site has to offer.


Albert Benhamou

Licensed Tour Guide, Israel

January 2020



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