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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Ancient synagogue mosaics portray Samson

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Jodi Magness

High-quality mosaics adorning the floor of an ancient synagogue in the Galilee have been found by archeologists representing a consortium of six North American universities, including the University of Toronto.

The 1,600-year-old mosaics, some of which depict biblical scenes, were described as “spectacular” by the lead archeologist, Jodi Magness, in a recent interview.

Magness, a professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina, was in Toronto in mid-March to deliver a lecture on the excavation.

The synagogue, from the Roman-Byzantine period, was uncovered on the site of Yaquq, an Arab village near the Sea of Galilee whose residents fled during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

The site was then taken over by the Israeli army and used as a training base. The ruins of the village were bulldozed in 1968.

 Samson, the biblical figure, as portrayed in an ancient synagogue mosaic found

Yaquq was also populated by Canaanites, Romans and Jews, being known as Hucuca during the Roman era and as Huqoq by Jews.

In addition to uncovering a synagogue, Magness and her colleagues dug up a ritual bath.

The remnants of dozens of ancient synagogue buildings have been uncovered in Israel and Jordan in the past few decades, said Magness.

What is unusual about Huqoq are the biblical mosaics. Only a very small number of late Roman synagogues decorated with such mosaics have been excavated, she added.

The dig in Huqoq, begun in 2011, is expected to be finished in 2016.

The mosaics will either be removed from the site and exhibited in a museum, or be left there within a new national park.

She hopes that the authorities choose the second option.

Apart from the University of Toronto, members of the consortium are the University of North Carolina, Brigham Young University, Trinity University, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Wyoming.

The University of Toronto team is under the direction of the Archeology Centre and the Centre for Jewish Studies.

Calling the synagogue building “monumental,” Magness saved much of her enthusiasm for the fourth to sixth century CE mosaics.

They portray a dedicatory inscription in either Hebrew or Aramaic, two female figures with lotus flowers in their hair who may well have been synagogue donors and the figure of Samson taking revenge on the Philistines.

“He has a thick red belt around his waist, and is dressed like a Roman soldier,” said Magness, who appeared at the interview with Michael Chazan, the director of U of T’s Archeology Centre.

Portrayals of Samson in synagogue mosaics are quite unusual, she pointed out. But in Huqoq, he was clearly seen as both “a local hero” and a “shield of Israel.”

In rabbinic sources, however, Samson is negatively regarded because he lusted after non-Israelite women, she noted.

During the Roman-Byzantine period, most of the inhabitants of Palestine were Christians, Romans and pagans. The majority of Jews living in villages in the eastern Galilee and on the Golan Heights were farmers. She does not know how many Jews lived in Palestine during that time.

And while she is not certain how many more ancient synagogues in the Galilee may be found in the future, she said that German archeologists working near by are also in the midst of excavating a synagogue.

Prior to Huqoq, Magness was involved in excavating the Roman siege works in Masada. “No one had ever done it,” she said.

She also worked in two other sites.

She excavated a late Roman fortress in Yotvata – the present site of a kibbutz in the Arava desert – and dug up the remains of two churches in the former Christian village of Khirbet Yattir, near Hebron.

Magness does not believe in using archeology for political ends.

“I have no political agenda,” she said. “People who do so misuse archeology. I’m a scientist, not a politician.”

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