Small circular lead objects found in the deposit of El Monastil, in the Alicante town of Elda, they have solved an enigma that has been dragging on since the 19th century. The experts of the University of Alicante and the archaeological museum of the town can already affirm that “the first Byzantine monastery of the Iberian Peninsula” has been identified.
In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian established the obligation to keep state weights in the main churches of each city. There the merchants had to show that the pesos they used in economic transactions corresponded with the officers. “The churches,” explains Antonio Manuel Poveda, a university professor of Ancient History and director of Archaeological Museum of Elda“They functioned as guarantors that buyers of precious metals were not deceived and that the coins corresponded to their real value. If the operations were fraudulent, the tax revenue was lower. ” And so the monastery of El Monastil functioned as a Byzantine administrative and fiscal headquarters by order of the emperor.
The research has lasted almost 25 years “due to the difficulties of identifying the architectural remains and liturgical furniture found,” explains Poveda. Many clues had been found at this time, but nothing was conclusive. Now the results of the latest research are: what had been identified as a Roman or Visigoth site in the highest part of a hill on the outskirts of Elda, has turned out to be a Byzantine basilica, the first unearthed in Spain.
The first who pointed out the presence of possible remains of the monastery was the municipal archivist Lamberto Amat in 1873, although he could not date its construction. 50 years ago, the Eldense Hiker Center He also found many archeological materials, but he was not able to identify them. In the 1980s, archaeologist Enrique Llobregat did confirm the “existence of a Christian monastery” at the top. He related some fragments with “a sigmatic altar [de estilo griego] Of marble”.
Now in addition to the set of weights with inscriptions in Greek, in the last excavations directed by Antonio Manuel Poveda a large octagonal column base has been found, typical of the Byzantine architecture and unique to date throughout the Peninsula. Also a pyxide or cylindrical ivory box decorated with the scene of Hercules capturing the Cerinea deer, where the liturgical sacred wafers were kept. The inclusion of this image in the box responds to the attempts of the Byzantines to fuse their Greco-Eastern ancestry with Western Christianity.
In this religious center – the convent church occupied an area of about 84 square meters – various metal instruments for the Byzantine liturgical ritual have also been found and identified, such as a teaspoon (cochlear) and a tiny little knife (lancia), both used to manipulate and offer sacred hosts before and during communion. These objects “constitute the only Hispanic group identified to date as belonging to the Byzantine Christian ritual in Spain,” says Poveda.
In addition, North African, oriental and local ceramic materials have been documented, offering dates from the second half of the 6th century, the same chronology that has a small necropolis located about 200 meters when in 1991 the service road of a highway A was built -31. Then 10 graves with 16 bodies were unearthed, four of which carried rings engraved with the letter sigma and one of them with a Greek cross. “We had many loose elements, but nothing that confirmed to us with total certainty that it was a Byzantine monastery,” says the professor.
Poveda emphasizes that after the discovery of the weights there are no doubts: it is a “Byzantine church belonging to a Greco-Eastern monastery, with architecture and furniture of invoice and Byzantine nature”. All this makes El Monastil a unique archeological site and “very important to illustrate an exceptional and difficult phase to know in Spain”.
Shortly before 610, the Visigoths defeated the Byzantines and created in Toledo an episcopal headquarters (Elo) dependent on Toledo waiting to take nearby Elche. When the illicit city fell, the bishopric of Elo was no longer necessary (She in the Middle Ages, Elda today). “The funny thing,” jokes Poveda, “is that the Church, like the nobility, never removes a title, so the Bishop of Elo must be somewhere,” the settlement where the first Byzantine monastery of the Peninsula was built . “Surely he doesn’t know yet,” he jokes with a shrug.
What did the Byzantines do in Spain? In 549 he acceded to the Visigoth throne Agila. Three years later a civil war broke out because the noble Atanagildo rebelled. By that time, the Byzantine armies advanced through the Mediterranean and decided to conquer the Diocese Hispaniarum (the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa). Atanagildo allied with them and facilitated that they occupy the coastal strip of the Peninsula, from southern Portugal to Valencia. They established their capital in Carthago Spartaria (Cartagena). A little more than 100 kilometers was the late-Roman population of Elo (El Monastil). And there, in a lonely hill, they raised the monastery and its necropolis.