Tuesday, July 12, 2011

New Synagogue Excavations In Israel and Beyond

It seems like almost everywhere archaeologists dig in the eastern Galilee these days, they are coming up with ancient synagogues.

In 2007, a third–fourth-century C.E. synagogue with beautifully decorated mosaic floors depicting Biblical episodes was discovered at the site of Khirbet Wadi Hamam outside Tiberias; just last summer, European archaeologists digging only 4 miles away, at Horvat Kur, announced that they, too, had found a synagogue, probably dating at least a century later.

Perhaps the most exciting recent synagogue discovery in Israel was in Magdala, reputedly the home of Mary Magdalene. (Was this the synagogue she regularly attended?) On the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the newly discovered Magdala synagogue, excavated by archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), is one of only seven uncovered in Israel that was in use during the first century C.E., when the Jerusalem Temple still stood.

The others include Masada, Herodium and Gamla, with which BAR readers are familiar.a Other possible examples have been excavated at Herodian Jericho, Qiryat Sefer and Modi’in.b

During the first century C.E., Magdala was a significant fishing village with a major port on the Sea of Galilee, as revealed in recent Italian excavations led by Stefano De Luca (under the general direction of the late Michele Piccirillo).1 Today the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee is much lower than in ancient times and the new archaeology excavations have revealed boat portals or hookups that today are far from the shore.

The Magdala synagogue from this time is richly decorated with frescoes of colored panels. Mosaics with geometric designs covered the floor. Impressive columns supported the roof. And a strange, nearly 3-foot-long stone block found in the center of the synagogue is elaborately carved on the side and the flat top. Among other reliefs, it features one of the earliest depictions of a seven-branched menorah.

Dina Avshalom-Gorni, the Israeli archaeologist who excavated the site for the IAA, believes the artist who carved the menorah may have modeled his depiction after the actual seven-branched menorah that stood in the Temple, making it a rare representation of the candelabra before the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Flanking the menorah is a pair of large, long-handled amphorae, as well as a pair of what appear to be fluted columns.

Decorating the top of the stone are various heart-shaped and floral motifs, as well as two palm trees that flank a large rosette with a circumscribed petal design. Although the precise function of the stone remains uncertain, it may have been used as a table on which Torah scrolls were rolled out and read or it may have been a stand for an actual menorah used during the service.

By the third and fourth centuries C.E., when the destroyed Jerusalem Temple had long ceased to be a focal point of Jewish life, synagogues were much more common. They were particularly prevalent in the Galilee and Golan regions, where more than 50 synagogues from the Roman period and late antiquity have been identified.

Among these is the synagogue at Khirbet Wadi Hamam recently identified by Hebrew University archaeologist Uzi Leibner. Digging barely a foot below the surface, Leibner came across the synagogue’s well-preserved stone walls—some still standing to a height of more than 8 feet. It was a large rectangular building divided by three rows of columns into a central hall and three narrow surrounding aisles. The building’s entrance faces south toward Jerusalem.

All but the entrance wall are lined with a double row of low stone benches. The synagogue could seat as many as 180 people. Built as early as the late third century C.E., it was significantly renovated less than a century later, probably because of damage suffered during the massive earthquake of 363 C.E. Only a few decades after the renovation, the building was destroyed, possibly by another earthquake. It was never rebuilt.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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