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Horvat Bira

Horvat Bira

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Transliterated Name Language Name
Horvat Bira Hebrew
Khirbet Bira
The Site

Ḥorvat Bira is a rural settlement south of the Rosh Ha‘ayin stone quarries. It covers an area of c. 7.5 a., half of which was occupied by dwellings and workshops. The remaining area included various agricultural installations. Ten structures identified as large dwellings, workshops, and storage structures were uncovered; and 16 reservoirs and cisterns, 4 rock-cut winepresses, 3 oil presses, a lime kiln, arcosolia tombs, shaft graves, and cist graves were also found. A church was constructed within one of the large dwellings. Paths quarried in the rock connected the various areas of the settlement.


Between 1980 and 1983 salvage excavations were conducted at the site on behalf of the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University and the Department of Antiquities and Museums, under the direction of S. Dar and Z. Safrai. In 1998 a complementary survey of ancient quarries was conducted around Ḥorvat Bira by Z. Safrai and A. Sasson.

Maps, Aerial Views, Plans, and Photos
Maps, Aerial Views, Plans, and Photos


  • Coastal Palestine 644-800 CE from Taxel (2013)

Aerial Views

  • Horvat Bira in Google Earth
  • Horvat Bira on


Normal Size

  • Site Plan from         Stern et al (2008)
  • Fig. 6 Plan of the Byzantine church (aka Building I) from Taxel (2013)


  • Site Plan from         Stern et al (2008)
  • Fig. 6 Plan of the Byzantine church (aka Building I) from Taxel (2013)


  • Horvat El-Bira site      from


Stern et al (2008)

Phase Date Range Description
1 4th-5th centuries CE appears to have served as the manor house of a wealthy Jewish family (fourth–fifth centuries ce), as indicated by lamp fragments depicting a menorah found within the house. This understanding is supported by Talmudic and Tannaitic sources
2 2nd half of 5th or beginning of the 6th century CE In the second half of the fifth or beginning of the sixth century ce, it was converted into a farmstead and included within it a church
3 7th-9th centuries CE During the Early Islamic period (seventh–ninth centuries ce), it was made into an oil press; historical sources may indicate that in this phase it was again owned by Jews
Dar and Safrai in Stern et al (2008) also report that
Ḥorvat Bira was abandoned in the ninth century. From then to the end of the Mameluke period (fifteenth century ce), the site was a temporary settlement only.

Revisions by Taxel (2013)

Recently, based on the published pottery from their excavation (Avissar 1997) and the results of more recent excavations conducted at the site (e.g., Schetelowitz and Oren 1999), I have revised Dar and Safrai’s above interpretation of the chronology and nature of Ḥorvat Bira (Taxel 2005: 236–42). With regard to the present study, most relevant are the conclusions related to the settlement’s Early Islamic phase.17 The ceramic finds from the two excavated industrial and domestic structures indeed point to their continuous use throughout the Early Islamic period and even later. However, there is no solid basis for the excavators’ conclusion that the church building was converted into an oil press at the very beginning of the Early Islamic period. This is due to the fact that the ceramic assemblages from the church are mixed, containing Byzantine through medieval pottery types, and thus cannot be used to date the transition. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of reusing Christian churches for domestic or industrial purposes (such as producing oil) is well documented throughout Early Islamic Palestine, with most cases apparently dated from the late Umayyad period (Schick 1995: 129–31; Magen 2008a: 267–306; and see below). It therefore seems more reasonable that the church at Ḥorvat Bira was abandoned and reused only around the late seventh/early eighth century. The excavation of a Byzantine wine press located on the fringes of the site supports this dating: At some later stage, a new floor was built inside the wine press, and some of its original components ceased to be used, suggesting that it was converted into some other type of industrial installation. A coin from the second half of the seventh century and the latest pottery sherds found beneath the floor date its construction to no earlier than the late seventh or eighth century (Taxel 2005: 240, with references).

The cessation of the use of the church (and apparently also the wine press) clearly indicates a shit in the religious affinity of at least some of the settlement’s population at the beginning of the Early Islamic period. Did this change occur before or ater the establishment of Ramla in ca. 715 c.e., and was it related in some way to this event? Did Ḥorvat Bira’s Christian population leave due to economic and/or sociopolitical pressures and settle in places with larger and more resilient Christian communities, such as Lod, or even Ramla? Or did the Christians not abandon their village, but rather their faith, converting to Islam, either gradually or en masse? I return to these and other questions below, not only as they relate to Ḥorvat Bira but also within the broader regional context. However, before doing so, it is necessary to address Dar and Safrai’s suggestion concerning the Jewish identity of the settlement’s new occupants in the Early Islamic period.

As I have previously demonstrated (Taxel 2005: 240– 41), whether the rock-cut element is indeed a miqveh cannot be determined with certainty given the published data; nor can we establish whether it postdated the church.18 In any case, even if the excavators are correct in their interpretation, both the miqveh and the lamp decorated with seven-branched menorahs could as easily represent a Samaritan population as a Jewish one, as both religious groups used ritual baths and employed the menorah motif in late antique and Early Islamic times (Magen 2008b). The literary sources, such as the Continuatio of the Samaritan chronicle of Abū l-Fatḥ (which was composed in 1355 c.e. but deals with the early seventh to early tenth centuries), indicate that throughout the Early Islamic period, Samaritans lived not only in Ramla and Lod but also in the nearby countryside.19 This text also preserves a positive Samaritan memory of the Umayyad caliphs and their reign (Levy-Rubin 2002; see also Gil 1992: 821, with additional references).20 This is not to suggest that the population should necessarily be considered Samaritan either. Without additional evidence, all proposals concerning the identification of the site’s inhabitants at the beginning of the Early Islamic period should be treated as tentative (see further below).

17 It is worth noting, however, that according to my revised chronology, the settlement was founded not in the Late Roman period but only in the sixth century (based on the earliest published pottery) and was inhabited by a Christian (and not Jewish) population from its very beginning (Taxel 2005: 237–40, 242).

18 According to D. Amit (personal communication, 2012), the rock-cut installation from Ḥorvat Bira is not a miqveh. Indeed, it is not included in Amit and Adler’s 2010 study, which presents an updated review of post-70 c.e. miqvaʾot in Palestine.

19 One of these rural settlements is Dājūn (modern Beth Dagan; ca. 9 km northwest of Lod and Ramla), which, according to the Continuatio, was a Samaritan village well into the Early Islamic period (Levy- Rubin 2002: 185). Interestingly, in the late 10th century, Muslims already inhabited Dājūn, as indicated by al-Muqaddasī (2001: 165) and other contemporary sources (Gil 1992: 332–33, with references). However, the published archaeological remains from Beth Dagan provide relatively little information about the site in the Early Islamic period (see, e.g., Peilstöcker and Kapitaikin 2000; Rauchberger 2008).

20 This is apparently despite the fact that the Continuatio also testiies that, at the time of the Muslim conquest, the Samaritans who lived in many of the coastal settlements, including Lod, fled to Byzantium “with the Byzantines” (namely, the Christians, who most probably made up the region’s Greek-speaking elite; Levy-Rubin 2002: 51).

8th century CE Earthquake

Taxel (2013:169) states that a building that was formerly a Byzantine Church in Horvat Bira was destroyed and abandoned, perhaps due to the 747–749 C.E. earthquake(s) - according to the excavators. However, some parts of the chronology of this site is debated (e.g., see Taxel, 2013:169-170).

Notes and Further Reading

Articles and Books

Safrai, Z., and Dar, S. 1997 Ḥorvat Bira—An Estate in the Lowland of Lod. Pp. 57–108 in Hikrei Eretz: Studies in the History of the Land of Israel, Dedicated to Prof. Yehuda Feliks, ed. Y. Friedman, Z. Safrai, and J. Schwartz. Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University (Hebrew).

Schetelowitz, N., and Oren, R. 1999 Khirbet el-Bira. Excavations and Surveys in Israel 107: 42*–43*.

Taxel, I. 2005 The Transition between the Byzantine and the Early Islamic Periods (the 7th Century ce) as Seen through Rural Settlement—Ḥorvat Zikhrin as a Case Study. M.A. thesis, Tel Aviv University (Hebrew).

Taxel, I. (2013). "Rural Settlement Processes in Central Palestine, ca. 640–800 c.e.: The Ramla-Yavneh Region as a Case Study." Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 369: 157 - 199.

Bibliography from Stern et al (2008)

D. Levi, Antioch Mosaic Pavements, Roma 1971, 135, 351–355

S. Dar, ESI 1 (1982), 11–13; 3 (1984), 11–13

R. D. Pringle, Crusade and Settlement (ed. P. W. Edbury), Cardiff 1985, 147–168

R. Gophna & I. Beit-Arieh, Map of Lod (80) (Archaeological Survey of Israel), Jerusalem 1997

R. Oren & N. Scheftelowitz, ibid. 20 (2000), 50*–51*

Y. Magen, LA 51 (2001), 257–266

Z. Safrai & A. Sasson, Quarrying and Quarries in the Land of Israel, Elkanah 2001 (Eng. abstracts).