800-Year-Old Seal Used by St. Sabas Uncovered

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” (Isaiah 52:7)

Picture of the excavation site. (Photo: Skyview Company/ Israel Antiquities Authority)
Picture of the excavation site. (Photo: Skyview Company/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

An 800-year-old lead seal used by the Monastery of St. Sabas was uncovered by archaeologists in Jerusalem. The rare seal, found in the Bayit VeGan neighborhood, was discovered a year and a half ago but only identified as a unique seal after processing and studying the material.

The seal was uncovered in what archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) believe was part of a farmstead belonging to the monastery’s property. According to the IAA, the farmstead was built during the Byzantine period (5th-6th centuries CE). The site was abandoned at the end of the Byzantine period and resettled during the 11th-12th centuries CE during the Crusader period. The farmstead reached its largest size during the Mamluk period in the 13th-14th centuries CE.

While excavating the area, archaeologists uncovered items that “reflected daily life in the farmstead.” However, the seal, described as a “rare lead seal dating to the Crusader period,” was a surprise.

Picture of the seal. (Photo: Clara Amit/ Israel Antiquities Authority)
Picture of the seal. (Photo: Clara Amit/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

Known in Latin as a bulla, the seal was attached to letters to ensure that the document was only opened by the right person. “The bulla consisted of two blank lead disks and had a string that passed through a channel between them,” the IAA explains. “In sealing the letter these were pressed together with a pincher shaped object with dies, creating the double faced seal.”

Archaeologists confirm that the seal was found in “excellent condition.” A bearded bust of a saint wearing a himation and holding a cross in his right hand and the Gospel in his left hand is seen on both sides of the seal. Surround the image is a Greek inscription labeling the saint, “Saint Sabas.” On the back of the seal, a longer Greek inscription reads, “This is the seal of the Laura of the Holy Sabas.”

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Historically, St. Sabas, also known by his Syriac name of Mar Saba, was one of the most powerful and influential leaders of the Christian monastic movement during the Byzantine period. Sabas helped establish numerous monasteries in the Judean Desert but “his crowning achievement was the construction of the Monastery of St. Sabas, referred to as the ‘Great Laura’.”

The monastery, which was built on a cliff overlooking the Kidron Valley, housed several hundred monks. St. Sabas is the only monastery in the Judean Desert that has been active since its creation. Today, there are approximately ten Greek monks who live in the monastery which belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church.

Sabas, who was also politically active during the Byzantine period, is said to have traveled twice on foot to the capital of Constantinople to meet with the emperor to request assistance for the country’s inhabitants. Following his death, Sabas was canonized is considered a Christian saint.

Picture of the seal. (Photo: Clara Amit/ Israel Antiquities Authority)
Picture of the seal. (Photo: Clara Amit/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to Dr. Robert Kool, “The Mar Saba monastery apparently played an important role in the affairs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the Crusader period maintaining a close relationship with the ruling royal family. The monastery had numerous properties and this farm may have been part of the monastery’s assets during the Crusader period.”

Excavation directors working for the IAA, Benyamin Storchan and Dr. Benyamin Solinka, point out the importance of the uncovered seal. “This is an extraordinary rare find because no such seal has ever been discovered to date.”

“The object possibly contributes important historical information about the surroundings of the site in the Bayit VeGan neighborhood. The excavated farmstead may well refer to a farming settlement sold to the monastery in 1163–1164. The document, part of the archives of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher during the Crusader period, mentioned a farming settlement by the name of Thora, whose whereabouts are unknown. It is quite possible the document refers to this site,” they added.