The inconspicuous country of Georgia is on the border of Asia and Europe, over 1,000 miles away from Israel. Less than half the size of the American state by the same name, this little entity, apart from its landmark Black Sea and Caucasus Mountains, is otherwise quite obscure.
Nevertheless, in a dramatic reveal of ancient relic proportions, Georgia recently made headlines in Israel and beyond by proving Georgian presence in this part of the world from almost two millennia ago.
Announced just before Hanukkah, an archaeological excavation close to Ashdod that began three years ago bore fruit at the end of the summer when archaeologists uncovered a long-buried treasure that has a direct connection to ancient Georgia.
This is not the first time Georgia has been in the spotlight in the Holy Land. The story of the latest discovery has a history that began in 1953 when the Bir el Qutt inscriptions, written in the 33-letter Georgian alphabet based on the Aramaic spoken at the time of Jesus, were found at St. Theodore Georgian monastery, located between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
The inscriptions date back to 532 AD and among other things, mention a Prince Peter the Iberian. He was an important figure, a Georgian philosopher who established the first Georgian monastery in Bethlehem and held the title of Bishop of Majuma which is near Gaza.
Since that find more than 60 years ago, experts have been looking for evidence that corroborates the inscriptions that state Prince Peter resided in Ashdod-Yam before he died. Ashdod-Yam was the location of the port of ancient Ashdod and where archaeologists have been digging for the last three years.
Ashdod is mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures as well as in the Greek. Acts 8:40 specifically references the name Azotus. “Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.”
In the apocryphal 1 Maccabees that also features the Hanukkah story, Azotus appears too as having been purified by Judas and Jonathan of the idolatrous temple of Dagon. It says, “But Judas turned aside to Azotus in the land of the Philistines. Judas tore down their altars, and he burned the carved images of their gods.”
A few hundred years later, once Byzantine Christianity had established itself, Ashdod-Yam was a flourishing and important city in the region and earned a place in the Madaba Map under the name “Azotus Paralios.”
Thus, in dramatic fashion, just a few months ago, on the southern Mediterranean coast, an elaborate, substantial yet colorful mosaic — an inscription in Greek — saw the light of day for the first time in centuries, to the surprise and delight of many.
In what is being hailed as the first evidence of Georgian habitation in Israel, this is not just a new discovery, it is also the proof that scientists had been looking for in their quest to connect theories and rumors to facts.
On this site of Ashdod-Yam, an acropolis of almost 70 dunams with a lower section to the city of 360 dunams was found. This sizable excavation boasts 22 layers of settlement from almost four thousand years ago that lasted until habitation came to an end in the Byzantine era. Archaeologists found evidence of Hezekiah’s activities mentioned in 2 Kings 18, as well as the Philistine invasion just over 3,000 years ago.
The real excitement and proof that was being sought was a Byzantine-era Greek inscription mosaic found on the floor of a 1,500-year-old building. It includes the Georgian Calendar date of 292. This corresponds with the year 539 AD and it’s the earliest known use of the Georgian calendar in the world — even in Georgia.
The four-line Greek inscription is a commemoration dedicated to the builders of the structure which could have been a church or monastery. According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, the mosaic says, “[By the grace of God (or Christ)], this work was done from the foundation under Procopius, our most saintly and most holy bishop, in the month Dios of the 3rd indiction, year 292.”
The archaeologists believe that the building where the mosaic was discovered is only a small portion of a larger complex and will be raising funds to continue excavating. They are excited about the Prince Peter connection and said, “… it seems that we have uncovered actual evidence of his influence on the Byzantine city of Ashdod-Yam.”
The Israel Antiquities Authority’s Ashkelon district and lead archaeologist is Sa’ar Ganor. He noted that modern Ashdod is currently home to the largest community of Jews of Georgian origin in the world.
“It’s interesting that, like today, Ashdod was a focus of attraction for Georgians,” he said.