Archaeologists In Israel Just Unearthed A 1,500-Year-Old Mosaic Featuring Scenes Of Life On The Nile

Published September 28, 2022
Updated February 27, 2024

The mosaic, located near the caliph's palace of Khirbat al-Minya off the coast of the Sea of Galilee, depicted flora and fauna from the Nile, a nod to the Egyptian river's life-giving powers.

Excavating The Mosaic

Johannes Gutenberg University MainzArchaeologists work to excavate the centuries-old mosaic.

After a three-year pause induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, archaeologists from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz returned to their site near the Sea of Galilee in Israel and made a stunning discovery. There, close to the northern end of Lake Tiberias, they uncovered an ancient mosaic that once lay in the shadow of a caliph’s palace.

“This time we have really hit the jackpot with our excavations,” site director Hans-Peter Kuhnen exclaimed in a university press release.

According to Heritage Daily, the team of archaeologists used geomagnetic surface surveys and test pits to uncover the elaborate mosaic floors, as well as plastered walls, basalt structures, and a water cistern. The mosaics depict flora and fauna from the Nile, popular motifs in the 5th and 6th centuries C.E., and a nod to the life-giving power of the annually flooding river.

“It was our prior geomagnetic scans that provided us with unusually accurate indications of what we were likely to find below the surface,” Kuhnen explained in the press release. “The outcome of our excavations has been exactly what we hoped for. Combining these two methods of investigation requires less exertion, helps preserve the archaeological heritage, and is thus the future of our discipline.”

Close Up Of Mosaics

Johannes Gutenberg University MainzThe mosaic included motifs of the Nile River that were popular in the 5th and 6th centuries.

The mosaic is just one part of the region’s story, however. The archaeologists found it near the site of an Umayyad-built palace called Khirbat al-Minya. According to their study of the site, the palace was built by a caliph around the 8th century C.E. But the mosaic, and other 5th to 7th-century ceramics, suggest that the palace was built near a pre-existing settlement.

“Our most recent excavations show that Caliph Walid had his palace built on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in an already carefully structured landscape that had long been inhabited,” Kuhnen explained in the press release.

As Heritage Daily notes, the settlement was probably occupied by early Christians or Jews. When the caliph built his palace, he added a side entrance so that new, Muslim inhabitants could access his mosque.

Though the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates occupied the site through the 7th and 11th centuries, the mosaics didn’t survive intact. According to the university press release, “pickaxes wielded by religiously inspired iconoclasts” destroyed much of the original tiling. The site’s original walls were also demolished, and stones were removed and reused elsewhere.

Excavation Site In Israel

Johannes Gutenberg University MainzThe excavation site (the brown part of the land) near the Sea of Galilee.

Archaeologists made one other significant discovery at the site. In addition to the mosaic, they also uncovered a stone furnace that was once used to process large quantities of sugar cane.

According to History Daily, sugar was one of the top exports from the region during the Middle Ages. But its production came at a hefty price. To produce sugar, ancient people used vast amounts of water as well as wood. This caused extensive soil erosion and environmental decay, to the point that some areas around the lake haven’t recovered — even centuries later.

“It was here that considerable money was subsequently made through the cultivation of sugar cane, sadly causing lasting damage to the ecosystem,” Kuhnen noted in the university press release.

All in all, Kuhnen and his team are thrilled with the discovery of the mosaic, which they say paints a picture of ancient, forgotten life in present-day Israel.

“Our research has brought this settlement adjacent to the caliph’s palace to light again, putting it in its rightful context among the history of human settlement of the Holy Land,” Kuhnen said in the university press release. “Over the centuries, it experienced alternating periods of innovation and decline, but there was no real disruption to its existence during its lifetime.”

After reading about the stunning mosaic excavated near the Sea of Galilee, see the Roman mosaic unearthed in central London. Or, learn how archaeologists came across the 1,600-year-old Huquoq mosaic in Israel, which depicts the end of days.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Archaeologists In Israel Just Unearthed A 1,500-Year-Old Mosaic Featuring Scenes Of Life On The Nile.", September 28, 2022, Accessed May 25, 2024.