PART 1: 2095 AD
Chapter 1: Hierapolis, Turkey
Talya flicked the sweat from her brow and watched it sizzle on the rock. She had been working without a break since early morning and it was now after two, the hottest part of the day. Dropping her trowel, she reached for the water bottle and glanced over to where Father Battista was scraping at a rocky outcrop. She swallowed some of the lukewarm liquid, and smiled at the sight of the fat priest on hands and knees, backside wobbling from side to side.
'Would you like a drink, Father? Something to eat? It is past our lunch break,' she called.
Alberto Battista unwound and placed his hands on the small of his back. He groaned as he thrust his ample stomach forward, and then climbed stiffly to his feet. 'An excellent idea, Talya. If I were to remain on my knees much longer, even the Lord Bishop would be impressed. Not that he would mind my suffering. On the contrary, I believe he would consider the penance good for my soul, but he would be offended by my lack of consideration for your wellbeing. Let us move out of the sun for a few minutes. This heat is truly unbearable.'
Talya pointed towards the entrance to the tomb of Josiah in the rock face behind her. It had been excavated many years previously, now it promised relief in its shade. 'Shall we take advantage of Josiah's resting place, then, Father?'
'I don't think he will be offended, my dear, and it will be cool within the depths.'
The archaeologist-priest hobbled over the hot sandy soil and followed his assistant into the cavern at the foot of the cliffs.
For two weeks, they’d been working this small dig near Colossae, in South-Western Turkey. Over recent years, the surrounding area had proven to be a treasure trove of ancient Christian relics.
Father Battista sat with his back against the cold wall of the cave and sighed with pleasure. 'Bishop Verroni, blessed be his name, is an erudite and Christian gentleman, but I feel he has little appreciation for the resources needed to investigate a site even this small. We could use a team of six or more to assess what we have here.'
Talya was in her final year, studying archaeology at Bilkent University in Ankara. She was the youngest of a family of seven and had been supported through university by her elder siblings. Eager to repay some of the faith her family had shown in her, she had responded to the Priest’s advertisement, seeking an assistant over the summer holiday period. The honorarium offered by Battista wasn’t much but it would be of some help to the family. She noted the priest’s mild criticism, and said, ‘Do you know why Bishop Verroni sent us to Honaz. This dig was excavated many years ago and there are other, as yet unexplored, sites nearby.’
When Father Battista laughed, his belly jiggled. 'The good bishop does not need a reason, my child, and if he does have one, well then, he does not need to share it with us lesser mortals. But I will hazard a guess he has discovered some passage in the ancient scrolls suggesting it might be beneficial to re-examine the area around Colossae. What that may be, or what he hopes to find, I know not, and I doubt he knows either.'
Talya pushed the hair from her eyes. 'Are we hunting wild geese, then Father?'
The priest smiled. He had been teaching his young co-worker the intricacies of English idioms, with limited success. 'Perhaps, but then again, we may catch them if we are diligent in God's work. And now Talya, let us give thanks, and then we will eat our repast with gusto.’ He joined his hands and bowed his head, and Talya followed his example. 'Bless us O Lord, and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.'
He reached for the bag of sandwiches and fruit they had brought, and then stopped abruptly. He felt an odd sensation, as though he was about to swoon. It took a few seconds to realise the source of his discomfort. He looked at Talya questioningly. 'Did you...' he began, and then he felt the earth tremble. Grains of sand began to dance and a sinister rumble echoed around the cave. ‘Earthquake! Quickly - out of the cave.’ Talya was already on her way. The priest stumbled and lost his balance as the ground beneath him shifted and cracked. Small particles of dirt and rock bounced painfully off his bare head. He looked up, praying the roof of the cavern would not collapse. He managed to raise himself onto his hands and knees and fling himself forward. Dust scratched at his eyes and forced its way down his throat. He coughed violently as he crawled towards the cave exit. Talya was lying flat on the ground, just outside. The tremor ceased, but the turmoil in his mind and the shaking of his body continued as he reeled unsteadily toward the opening. 'Talya!' he called, feeling the rasp in his throat and coughing again. 'Are you all right, child?'
Talya stood up, rubbing her eyes. 'That was unpleasant,' she said, laughing nervously.'
Battista fell to his knees, hands clasped and tears trickling down his face. 'Blessed Jesus, we thank you for preserving us in this moment of peril. Thou hast spared this unworthy sinner from a terrifying death.' He wiped his eyes with a handkerchief and let out a long breath. 'I don't think I've ever been so afraid in my life.'
'It is alarming, Father, when the Earth trembles so, is it not? In this part of the world, tremors are common enough but usually they are mild.'
'Thanks be to God, child. Is it safe, do you think, to go back into the cave? The dust appears to have settled and in my haste I left our lunch behind, as well as our digging tools.'
Talya nodded assent, the priest brushed himself down, and then both made their way back inside the cavern.
They recovered their sandwiches and sat down to eat. Alberto glanced around at the walls and roof. They looked solid enough-then his heart leaped painfully as he spied movement towards the rear of the cavern. The earth felt still, but he examined the area intently. A depression had appeared on the floor of the cave, sand trickling towards its centre. He chastised himself for his timidity.
Talya had seen him start and glanced around, anxiously. 'Father. What is it?'
'I'm not sure, child. I think the vibration has caused the ground to sink in that spot – perhaps there is a cleft in the rock.' He rose to take a closer look. 'Wait here, Talya. I will call if it is safe.'
He stepped out cautiously, one foot searching in front of the other. After a few paces, he turned towards the girl, relieved. 'It's all right. It seems quite firm.'
Abruptly the ground fell away beneath his feet, and he disappeared from Talya's sight.
'Father!' she yelled, as a cloud erupted from where the priest had stood. She scrambled to her feet, hurried to the edge of the cave-in and dropped to her hands and knees. The dust thinned and she peered into the hole. Father Battista was sitting six feet below, his face and clothing covered in dust. 'Father,' she repeated. 'Are you all right?'
‘My dignity is bruised, certainly, but my bones appear unbroken,' said the priest, with a surprised look on his face. He scooped up a handful of sand and let it trickle through his fingers, then glanced around him. ‘There’s a lot of sand here, I’d say accumulated over many years. That’s what cushioned my fall.' He jumped to his feet. ‘Help me out, Talya. We have work to do. There may be more to this chamber than meets the eye.’
They retrieved some materials from the back of the Landrover and erected a bucket and pulley system over the crevasse. The next few hours were spent clearing the room of sand, until the priest’s shovel struck solid ground. Talya climbed down a ladder and poked around with a crowbar. On the floor, close to a wall, her prodding produced an echo. Together, they brushed away the remaining sand to reveal the outline of a flagstone. They scraped the silt from around the edges, inserted the heavy crowbar and pulled. The flagstone resisted their efforts for a few seconds, then lifted with a groan and hiss of air.
Father Battista reached for his torch. The beam shone on a set of stairs. ‘It seems we have uncovered something new.’ He looked at her, smiling. ‘The good Bishop will be pleased. Bring your camera with you, Talya. We will need to record this.’
They descended the stairs and ducked under a low doorway. The priest shone his flashlight around the revealed chamber. The walls were bare and the room was empty except for a rectangular block sitting on a stone table.
‘Are you filming, Talya? Have a look at this!' The torchlight illuminated a stone container with carvings on the face. Two rosettes, and a fish complete with scales, fins and eyes carved on the front could be seen clearly, as well as a stick figure drawn in the mouth of the fish.
'A burial box!' cried Talya, excited.
‘Yes,’ said Batista. He looked around eagerly. One ossuary in this entire room! ‘This must be the resting place of an influential man to merit such space.’ He was aware that some significant ossuaries had been found recently in Jerusalem. A tomb, cut from rock in Talpiot in 2065, had been found to contain ten ossuaries. He recalled the furore caused when it was suggested that these were the resting place of Jesus of Nazareth and other figures from the New Testament. The claims had been hotly disputed by most archaeologists including Bishop Verroni.
Battista took out his magnifying glass. 'The carvings are deep and there are some marks that look like writing.' The priest’s hand trembled. He felt elated. The fish symbol had been shunned by pious Jews in biblical times as ‘graven images’, and had been adopted by Christians as representing Jonah and the Whale, signifying death and re-birth. ‘This is without doubt early Christian.'
Talya checked the recording light was on. 'It is a magnificent find, father.' She pointed the camera at the face of the perspiring priest, then back to the ossuary.
'Oh, my!' The priest took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his brow. 'This is unbelievable, and the lettering...’ He pointed out the elaborate frieze border, and the rosette's petals that were in high relief and washed with a reddish-rose paint. The sides and back of the ossuary were plain, which was the norm. He took a brush from his bag and caressed the dust away from the lettering.
'What language do you think this is, father?'
'I'm not an expert in ancient languages, but there are three phrases here, I think in three different languages. I can recognise Greek and perhaps this might be Aramaic. Look at the top! I’ve never seen anything like this.’ The top dovetailed snuggly into the walls of the box. He scraped lightly at one of perhaps forty or fifty round spots around the perimeter. ‘The top appears to have been secured with lead nails.
He debated whether he dared disturb the site. This was a significant find and by rights should have all the resources of the Vatican arraigned behind it. But we will be required to obtain government approval and permits from many involved departments, and that could take years, and depending on the politics, might never eventuate. On the other hand, the dig was remote, standing just outside the boundaries of Mount Honaz National Park, high on the slopes, and at least ten kilometres from the nearest village.
In the end, pragmatism and his inquisitive nature got the better of him.
Battista’s face was beaming and his eyes sparkled with excitement. 'Talya, how would you like to see Rome?'
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish