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Australia’s Byzantine Trophy of War – Part 1

As discussed in Edition 8 of Traces Magazine, Timothy Carnovale dives into the trenches of World War I and examines the discovery of the Shellal Mosaic.

Christopher Hitchens, an Anglo-American author and anti-theist, once exclaimed that those with the title ‘Reverend’ would be able to get away with anything. Senior Church of England Chaplain to the Australian Imperial Forces in Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine in World War I – Reverend William Maitland Woods’s motives are debated to this day.

By his own admission, Woods sent a shipload of antiques on the Wiltshire, with under three tonnes of Byzantine-era ballast, now known as the Shellal Mosaic. Prior to being kept on Gezira Island, Cairo for 18 months after discovery, the Shellal Mosaic laid under a hilltop for 1300 years in Shellal.

The Shellal Mosaic was inadvertently unearthed by Turkish trenching tools during the second battle of Gaza in April 1917. On April 17, 1917, the 2nd Light Horse Brigade of the Anzac Mounted Division were examining the abandoned Turkish trenches, Signaller Ernest Lovell-Shore credited to uncovering the ‘trench art’.

W O McEwan recalled “we had uncovered a Greek inscription bordered by a swastika design on each side of which was half a fish, all wonderfully wrought in mosaic with tiny bits of coloured marble”. An SOS for Reverend Woods was sent to examine the antiques and also the uncovered human bones close by. This was ultimately identified as the remains of the mosaic flooring of an early Christian Church, measuring at 8.2 by 5.5 metres. An inscription was found, which read “And he provided bountifully for the building of this church… He who was the most saintly of us… George, the beloved of God… Founded in the 622nd year after…[Christ].”

The remains were believed to be of Saint George of Cappadocia, the patron saint of England, which ignited a further turf war to decide who would bear possession to the remains and the Shellal Mosaic. Australia, New Zealand and England all argued possession, but Reverend Woods himself fought to take ownership of the Greek inscription and the saint relics (George of Shellal) to place in the Brisbane Cathedral.

Want to learn the fate of the Shellal Mosaic? Pick up your copy of Traces Edition 9 in stores or stay tuned!

Want to uncover Australia’s past? Subscribe by the end of February to receive the newest edition of Traces Magazine.

Pictured is the Shellal Mosaic.

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