With the Jewish holidays having finished not that long ago, a look at the archeology of ancient synagogues is a timely topic. It is a topic archeologists have concerned themselves with for well over a century.
The origin of the synagogue is still widely debated, although many scholars look to the Babylonian exile for its beginnings. It was during this time that our people needed a sense of identity, a place to gather, as well as an anchor for their ancestral faith, which had been so badly shaken by Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction and forced deportation. It was the synagogue that would provide all of these elements for the exiles.
The term synagogue is Greek in its linguistic origin and is the equivalent of the Hebrew beit knesset, or meeting house, which is probably how the institution began. It gave the Jews of the exile a place to meet and pray.
Despite the central role of the Temple in Jewish worship prior to its destruction in 586 BCE, other cultic sites have been found throughout Israel dating from before the event. Afterward, there is even more evidence of buildings of worship in places such as Egypt. In fact, Greek inscriptions dating to the third century BCE mention synagogues have been found in the Fayum oasis in Egypt.
The remains of synagogues have also been found throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. Among the oldest synagogue to be excavated is the one on the island of Delos in the Aegean Sea. Delos is said to have been the birthplace of Apollo and was the treasury of the Greek alliance, known as the Delian Confederacy. The confederacy was headed by Athens in fifth century BCE.
In Athens, a menorah made of marble was found in the excavations of the agora, or ancient marketplace. It indicates the presence of a synagogue, but more conclusive evidence is needed to clinch the identification.
One of the earliest synagogues in the ancient Mediterranean has been found at Ostia Antica, the harbour city for Rome. Ostia is one of the best-preserved Roman cities to have survived from antiquity, almost as well preserved as the better-known site of Pompeii. As it was a city devoted to trade, it is not unusual to find a colony of Jews in its midst.
It should also be kept in mind that in the early centuries of the Common Era, Jews made up as much as 10 per cent of the population of the Roman Empire. Initially, the line was blurred between Judaism and Christianity, with an intermingling occurring when it came to worship. This should come as no surprise, since only two Jewish sects survived the destruction of the Second Temple. One would go on to become normative Judaism, while the other, Jewish Christianity, would divorce itself from its Jewish roots.
The largest Diaspora synagogue so far unearthed from ancient times is the one found in Sardis, an important city in Asia Minor, or Turkey as it is now called. The synagogue dates from the fourth century, which is somewhat unusual since this was the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and the it began to view Jews and their religion with hostility.
However, the vast majority of synagogues that have been discovered and excavated were found in Israel, especially since the establishment of the State in 1948, and even more so since 1967. Many of these synagogues have been found in the Galilee and the Golan. They are showing us that Jewish religious and communal life remained vigorous in Israel even after the disaster of the two revolts against Rome.
What the discovery of these ancient synagogues demonstrates is that despite major calamities, we have managed to survive and maintain our religious identity in a vigorous way. The synagogue has been an integral part of that survival.