Archaeologists claimed yesterday to have uncovered one of the world's first churches, built on a site believed to have once housed the Ark of the Covenant.
The site, emerging from the soil in a few acres in the hills of the Israeli occupied West Bank, is richly decorated with brightly coloured mosaics and inscriptions referring to Jesus Christ.
According to the team, led by Yitzhak Magen and Yevgeny Aharonovitch, the church dates to the late 4th century, making it one of Christianity's first formal places of worship.
"I can't say for sure at the moment that it's the very first church," said Mr Aharonovitch, 38, as he oversaw a team carrying out the final excavations before winter yesterday. "But it's certainly one of the first." He said the site contained an extremely unusual inscription which referred to itself, Shiloh, by name.
"That is very rare and shows early Christians treated this as an ancient, holy place," said Mr Aharonovitch. According to the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, was kept by the Israelites at Shiloh for several hundred years.
But there's a catch:
The team at Shiloh is considering whether to dig under the beautiful mosaics that they have uncovered, in order to find traces of the Ark. "We have to decide whether to fix the mosaics here or take them to a museum," said Mr Aharonovitch.
Jewish residents in the modern settlement of Shiloh, which sits on a hill amidst Palestinian villages, want the team to keep digging.
David Rubin, a former mayor of Shiloh, said: "We believe that if they continue to dig they'll reach back to the time of the Tabernacle," referring to the portable place of worship where the Israelites housed the Ark.