I imagine that it was something like jumping from a great height, like those cliff divers jumping off the ancient seawall in Akko.
But I’m not talking about how the blinding sun beats down on you during the internal silence before the jump, or that long whistling fall through the air, or the hot slice of your body through the salty ancient waves. I’m talking about the part that comes after, when gravity takes you farther under than you meant to go, pulling you deeper and deeper. The water is colder down there. And suddenly, you stall out in the middle of the deep. Below you, the inky black of the sea, hiding ageless untold secrets. And above… Above…
Before beginning the long, slow climb up through the water, you look up to the surface. You see the faint, distant silvery shimmer of the sun on the waves. Your air, trapped in bubbles, makes a mad dash for the light, all but crying out for escape from the deep. In the weightless rapture of the water, you are completely alone, and suddenly everything outside this water, everything you have ever known up to this moment is so far, so faint, just a distant memory.
You might even consider staying there, just for a while, but your body’s buoyancy leads you, however unwillingly, into the long, slow ascent to the surface, to return to the world you know. To return to the land of the living. To return to the blistering heat of the sun.
But what if you had no buoyancy? What if you were buried under layers and layers of dust instead of a few meters of water? What if it took you more than a millenium and a half to return to the land of the living? In your time spent in the darkness, in the deep, peering up through the space between yourself and the surface, what would you remember?
A few months ago, they decided to begin a building project on a nondescript hillside in Aluma, a small village near Ashkelon, south of Tel Aviv.
And when they began digging to lay foundations, they uncovered a secret that had been hidden for more than a thousand years. The breathtakingly beautiful mosaic floor of a long-forgotten Byzantine basilica, with millions of tiny tiles painstakingly laid by master craftsmen.
In many places ravaged by time, the elements, and later periods of settlement on the site. But still there, and still breathtaking.
They opened it to visitors for two days only, before beginning the work to remove it, study it, restore it and later place it in a museum. And thanks to some beautiful new friends and a beautiful January day, we got the chance to see it firsthand, in the place where it has always been.
It was abandoned at the end of the Byzantine era, it fell into ruins in the Muslim era, and for centuries and centuries was lost in the earth until it was rediscovered by accident this year.
But what did the floor feel for all those years? Centuries after centuries of going deeper and deeper into the dust and the earth, farther than it ever meant to go. Did it peer up through the dust, from the darkness and the deep? Did it feel alone? Did it long for the sun?
What did it feel the day it was rediscovered? Did it feel the scraping of the backhoe, did it hear the frantic screaming of the workers to stop the machines, did it gasp for breath as it looked up into the burning sun for the first time in more than a thousand years?
And what does it remember, after all those years in the darkness? This floor, unlike the first-century synagogue at Magdala, doesn’t remember Jesus firsthand. And yet, it bears testament to him and to his mother with a carefully laid inscription. In a similar way, it also remembers the name of two priests and a donor who gave money to finance the project. It remembers a host of gorgeous plants and animals, a testament to the glory of God’s creation. And it remembers a beautiful ancient basilica, the bygone splendor of the earliest days of Christianity in the Holy Land.
The walls of the church were long since dismantled, the building materials reused in Muslim-era dwellings on the site. An ancient church column on the site forms a part of a Muslim-era house’s wall.
But the floor remains, after centuries of going deeper and deeper into the dust and the earth, farther than it ever meant to go.
Echoes of the past, calling out from the weightless rapture of the deep.