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Excavations of ancient synagogue unearth stunning mosaics

Prof. Jodi Magness at the excavation site. (Jodi Magness photo)

The archeological world has been buzzing since last summer with news that a dig in Israel yielded stunning mosaics that were not only preserved beyond expectations, but presented scholars with some significant firsts.

The excavation of a 5th century CE synagogue in Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in the Lower Galilee near Capernaum and Magdala (modern day Migdal), has revealed a mosaic floor that provides the first depiction of the story of Jonah found in ancient Jewish art, the first portrayal of an episode that is considered so minor it barely merits mention in the Bible, and the first non-biblical story adorning an ancient synagogue.

The find reflects an “unparalleled, rich repertoire of biblical and non-biblical scenes,” the project’s leader, Prof. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told The CJN in a phone interview.

Magness and her team began the excavation in 2011. There were indications that there had been a synagogue in the prosperous Jewish village of Huqoq, but its precise location was unknown.

What the team unearthed was a large, well-constructed building made of big blocks of stone – in all, about 20 metres long by a little fewer than 15 metres wide.

“Not only does it have these amazing mosaics but also richly decorated walls and columns that were covered in painted plaster,” Magness said. “And some of the paint is still adhering to columns. I like to say it was a very kitschy synagogue.”

But what really attracted attention were the magnificent mosaics paving the floor.

Typically, Galilean synagogues from this period were paved with flagstones, Magness explained. The few floor mosaics discovered have been very poorly preserved, but those at Huqoq are 70 to 75 per cent preserved.

“There’s nothing else like it,” Magness enthused.

At least two panels are not biblical. One of them, the so-called elephant mosaic, might suggest the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest in Jerusalem. Others have suggested possible Maccabean or Hasmonean interpretations, Magness said.

The head of the royal figure, thought to be Alexander the Great, in the “elephant mosaic.”
(Photo by Jim Haberman)

The other non-biblical mosaic is a helio, or sun-based, zodiac in the centre of the synagogue. Magness said such symbols have been found in about 10 ancient synagogues in Israel.

The biblically-themed mosaics offer rich references to Samson, the books of Isaiah and Daniel and the story of the spies who bring back clusters of grapes after they scoped out the land for Moses as described in the book of Numbers. Also found were mosaics depicting the building of the Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark and one showing Pharaoh’s soldiers being swallowed by giant fish in the Reed Sea.

Apart from the first known depiction of the story of Jonah in a building this old, what’s generated a lot of attention worldwide is a mosaic that was uncovered last summer. It portrays the reference, found on two lines in the book of Exodus, to Elim, a place where the wandering Israelites camped after leaving Egypt because it had springs of water and palm trees.

“It’s a pretty obscure episode,” Magness said. “That’s one of the things my specialists are trying to figure out. What is it about this particular episode that resonated with this congregation?”

The mosaic is clear, though: The word Elim is rendered in Hebrew.

Magness said her team has excavated approximately three-quarters of the Huqoq synagogue, and estimates it needs another two years to complete the dig. Whether the site will ever open to the public is up to Israel, she added.

Magness is slated to speak in Toronto on Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Eaton Theatre on the excavations at Huqoq, which are co-sponsored by the University of Toronto with donations from the Canadian Institute for Mediterranean Studies.