A Roman-era mosaic portraying multiple Biblical characters and stories has been unearthed in the ruins of a 1,600-year-old synagogue at Huqoq in Israel’s Galilee region.
Professor Jodi Magness, an archaeologist and professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, has been excavating the site every northern summer since 2011, except for two years during the pandemic, supported by an international team of experts, students, and volunteers.
This year the team finished its dig on the interior of the Late Roman synagogue and the Mamluk synagogue from the 14th century that was built on top of it. The Times Of Israel writes that the entire 20×14 metre floor is covered in vibrant mosaics illustrating Biblical scenes and ornate designs from the period.
The incredibly well-preserved depictions include scenes from the Book of Judges such as Samson with foxes and carrying the Gaza gate, judge Deborah and Kenite woman Yael killing Canaanite general Sisera. Also illustrated are Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, the splitting of the Red Sea, Moses’s spies in Canaan, the oasis of Elim from Exodus and Jonah being swallowed by a fish. Numerous animals are featured such as a tiger hunting an ibex, plus lions and bulls.“
“There is no other synagogue like this anywhere in Israel that has so many different mosaics with so many different Biblical themes and parallels,” said Professor Magness, adding that while “the mosaics get the publicity, we have huge quantities of other artifacts, including pottery, coins, boxes of animal bones, and glass fragments” The building itself features unique architecture including columns still retaining some of their original, colourful plaster paintings.
The Times Of Israel reports Professor Magness concedes the mosaics were an accidental discovery after she was originally drawn to the site for very different reasons that focused on the impact of early Christian rule, and what happened to Jewish villages as Christianity became more widespread.
“Many of my Israeli colleagues think that Christian rule was oppressive to the Jews and that these early Jewish settlements declined, and some even disappeared. My impression from the archaeology was always exactly the opposite, that the settlements continued to prosper and flourish.”
The excavations show that Huqoq was growing throughout the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries, and the size of the mosaic means it was a fairly prosperous village, Professor Magness explained. Architecturally, the original synagogue is similar to the one at Capernaum. The one built over it is the only known synagogue from the Mamluk Period [1250 to 1517] uncovered in Israel.
The site is being handed over to the Israeli Antiquities Authority and the Jewish National Fund which plan to transform it into a unique tourist attraction.