For more than two years, ISIS forces who occupied this northern Syrian city paid little attention to the tip of an old gate on an empty mound of land where they dumped trash.
They were clueless the gate ran several feet into the ground down to something they might well have destroyed had they known: The ruins of an ancient Christian refuge, or early church, possibly dating back to the first centuries of Christendom’s existence, under the Roman Empire.
“I was so excited, I can’t describe it. I was holding everything in my hands,” Abdulwahab Sheko, head of the Exploration Committee at the Ruins Council in Manbij, told Fox News, as he led a reporter on a recent tour of the ruins.
Among the artifacts found that indicate this was a significant site for Christians were several versions of crosses etched into columns and walls, and writings carved into stone.
“This place is so special. Here is where I think the security guard would stand at the gate watching for any movement outside,” Sheko explained, working his way through what he called the “first location” of the site. “He could warn the others to exit through the other passage if they needed to flee.”
The ancient space is carved out with narrow tunnels, complete with grooved shelves to offer light, which were believed to offer passage for worshippers. There are myriad escape routes in the tunnels as well, featuring large stones that may have served as hidden doors. Also visible are three jagged steps leading up to what Sheko believes was an altar of sorts.
The discovery of a so-called “secret church,” dating as far back as the third or fourth century, A.D., could be an important find, according to a leading American archaeologist.
“They indicate that there was a significant Christian population in the area which felt they needed to hide their activities,” said John Wineland, professor of history and archaeology at Southeastern University. “This is probably an indication of the persecution by the Roman government, which was common in the period.”
Wineland said Christians were persecuted “sporadically at first, and later more systematically by the Roman government.” Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire until its worship was decriminalized by Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D.
Christians of the time “met in secret, underground, to avoid trouble. But the Romans were fearful of any group that met in secret,” said Wineland.
“The Romans misunderstood many Christian practices and would often charge them with crimes, such as cannibalism,” Wineland added. He said such charges stemmed from the “Roman misunderstanding of Christian communion where Christ said to take and eat His body and drink His blood.”
As more of them are unearthed and studied, it’s not yet clear just how important a find these new ruins might be.
Sheko said he reached out to international archeologists and organizations since his team began cleaning up the site last fall, and needs help identifying artifacts and to “test the bones” of human remains found here. But the response from abroad so far, he said, is that it is still too dangerous to send archaeological teams to this part of a still devastatingly war-torn country.
Sheko said he’s also hopeful the Vatican will “become aware of these discoveries” and will soon send someone to inspect the ruins.
The site was fortunate to escape ISIS’ attention. Sheko said he was in the midst of studying the neighborhood when the infamously Christian-hostile group invaded in 2014. He managed to keep the secret of it quiet until ISIS was driven out in a bloody offensive by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in 2016.
Due to the area being riddled with mines and booby traps, extensive cleanup and digging at the site couldn’t begin until late August last year. The excavation produced enough by March for Sheko and his team to host “a festival” of sorts for a handful of locals to come and visit.
In fact, it was the locals who led the way to another, very recently discovered “second location” ‒ which is still littered with insects, trash ‒ and even a stray dog sleeping inside. Within this location, down 11 jagged stone steps and into a cave that opens up into a multitude of rooms, overt Christian symbols are everywhere, etched into the stone walls and across the arched ceilings.
“We think this place after Christianity was no longer a secret anymore,” explained Sheko, gesturing to the symbols.
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SOURCE: Fox News – Hollie McKay