Israeli archeologists working with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) discovered what they described as the finest 1,200-year-old luxurious rural estate in the Negev desert. The archeologists said that this was a first of its kind discovery, which was exposed during archaeological excavations currently being carried out: a unique vaulted complex overlying a three-meter-deep rock-hewn water cistern.
The excavations are being funded by Israel’s Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev as part of a plan for expanding the town of Rahat.
The building was dated to the Early Islamic period (8th-9th centuries CE). It was constructed around a central courtyard, and it comprised four wings with rooms to serve the needs of the residents. In one wing, there was a hall paved with a marble and stone floor and walls decorated with frescoes (wall paintings on damp plaster).
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The extant small fresco fragments were finely colored in red, yellow, blue and black. Other rooms in the building had plaster floors, and in other rooms, very large ovens—probably for cooking—were uncovered. Amongst the small finds were fragments of delicate decorated glass serving dishes.
According to Oren Shmueli, Dr. Elena Kogan-Zehavi and Dr. Noé D. Michael, the directors of the Israel Antiquities Authority excavations: “This is a unique discovery unknown until today. We were surprised to discover a complex of stone-built vaults at a depth of 5.5 m below the courtyard, standing to a height of 2.5 m. The vaults were carefully constructed, and they probably led into additional underground complexes that have not yet been uncovered.”
The archeologists also said that their biggest surprise was the discovery of an opening below the vaulted rooms. The opening led into a deep rock-hewn cistern. They believe that the stone-built underground vaults were built as storerooms to store foodstuffs at fairly cool temperatures, and the supporting vaulted structures enabled the residents to move around underground safely and comfortably, to protect themselves from the scorching summer heat, and to drink cool water from the adjacent cistern. The clay oil lamp sherds retrieved on the vault floors were used for lighting the dark rooms, providing evidence for the residents’ activity at the site, they explained.
“The luxurious estate and the unique impressive underground vaults are evidence of the owners’ means. Their high status and wealth allowed them to build a luxurious mansion that served as a residence and for entertaining; we can study the construction methods and architectural styles, as well as learn about daily life in the Negev at the beginning of Islamic rule”, say the excavation directors.