University of Toronto archeologists are part of a team that unearthed a stunning mosaic floor that decorated the interior of a synagogue that stood in Israel around the fourth to sixth centuries CE.
Since June 2011, U of T’s archeology centre, led by Michael Chazan, has been participating in the Huqoq Excavation Project, which is directed by Jodi Magness, the religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina, and David Amit, an archeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The goal of the project, expected to continue for the next five years, is to excavate the late Roman and Byzantine site of Huqoq in Israel near the Sea of Galilee to uncover the remains of a synagogue and understand its setting in the village.
Huqoq, which was abandoned in the Middle Ages and was later re-inhabited by Arabs until the State of Israel was established in 1948, lies about five kilometres west of Capernaum, which is where Jesus is believed to have lived as an adult, and about five kilometres north of Migdal, the birthplace of Mary Magdalene.
Alex Gropper, president of U of T’s Canadian Institute for Mediterranean Studies (CIMS) who has led past archeological digs to Israel, said this discovery is exciting because not only did the archeologists find the synagogue they were looking for, but also a beautiful mosaic floor with an inscription on it.
According to a press release on U of T’s website, the mosaic is made from high quality coloured stone cubes and includes a scene depicting Samson placing torches between the tails of foxes.
Another part of the mosaic features two female faces that flank a Hebrew inscription that refers to rewards for those who perform good deeds.
“This discovery is significant because only a small number of ancient synagogue buildings are decorated with mosaics showing biblical scenes, and only two others have scenes with Samson – one is at another site just a couple of miles from Huqoq,” Magness was quoted in the U of T press release.
Although Gropper, who said the discovery of the mosaic was a “complete surprise,” added that based on the photos he’s seen, he hasn’t been able to translate the inscription, which is either in Hebrew or Aramaic. He said he looks forward to learning exactly what the inscription says.
But what the elaborate mosaic reveals is that the village where the synagogue stood was likely very prosperous, Gropper said.
“It also indicates that there was a very strong Jewish presence in the land despite the fact that it had supposedly been depopulating because of the revolts against Rome… This just buttresses and highlights the Jewish presence in the area.”
He said he hasn’t yet been able to visit the site since they began digging in June 2011, but said he’s looking forward to hearing from Magness, who was invited by the CIMS to speak on Nov. 1 at U of T.
The Huqoq Excavation Project is supported in part by U of T’s Centre for Jewish Studies, the Archeology Centre, as well as the Canadian Institute for Mediterranean Studies, which is accepting donations to continue to fund the dig.