Archaeologists uncover a plethora of astounding mosaics in late Roman era synagogue

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The ancient synagogue at Huqoq, an antediluvian Jewish village in Israel’s Lower Galilee, has the been the focal point of yearly excavations since 2011, led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the space of only half-a-decade, archaeologists were able to unravel a series of stunning mosaics from the confines of the structure that harks back to the late Roman period (circa 5th century AD). And the interesting part is, the spectrum of subject matter covered by these artworks is extensive, ranging from Biblical scenes (including stories of Noah and Samson), Greco-Roman divine entities to even historical scenarios like (possibly) Alexander the Great meeting a Jewish high priest.

In the Biblical scope Huqoq is mentioned as a border town for the tribe of Naphtali in the Book of Joshua, while historically in the later era of the Romans (and Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire), the settlement functioned as an agricultural village that produced its fair share of mustard, stone vessels and rabbis (thus attesting to its ancient Jewish population). Suffice it to say, the archaeologists were pleasantly surprised by the flurry of mosaics, an artwork feature that was never found before in canonical Galilean synagogues.

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Samson carrying the gates of Gaza.

The first of these mosaics were discovered in 2012 after a year of excavation at the ancient site. The find pertained to the depiction of Samson and his rage-fueled action of setting the Philistines’ fields ablaze by tying burning torches to each unfortunate pair of foxes’ tails (Judges 15:4). In 2013, the researchers found yet another mosaic representation of Samson, this time carrying the gates of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3) – pictured above.

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The blonde-haired Greek military commander.

In the following years, archaeologists were able to uncover even more incredible mosaic scenes, including the ‘non-Biblical’ one that portrays a Greek military commander with golden locks (possibly Alexander the Great), wearing a regal purple attire and a diadem, who is meeting with a white-bearded man clad in white robes (possibly a high priest). Quite intriguingly, the Greek commander is showcased in an authoritative light, as he leads a bull by its horns and is followed by soldiers and even an elephant (pictured in the featured image) – an animal that was never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Now while the main hypothesis regarding this panel still leans towards the representation of Alexander the Great, the other possibility relates to the depiction of Maccabees facing off against the Seleucid Greeks.

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Egyptian soldiers swallowed by a monster fish.

In 2015, the researchers were once again enticed by the pictorial scope of the corresponding panel which depicts a rather vivid scene involving humans, animals and mythological creatures like putti (cupids). And in 2016, archaeologists were able to discern mosaic images pertaining Noah’s Ark and his adventure, along with the (separate Biblical episode of) parting of the Red Sea. The story of Noah’s Ark is represented with the illustration of an ark and pairs of animals, including an assortment of camels, lions, sheep, donkeys, bears and even snakes. As for the momentous scene of the parting of the Red Sea, the very-next mosaic depicts the Egyptian soldiers being swallowed by a monster fish, while their chariots are overturned and destroyed.

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Pair of donkeys in Noah’s Ark scene.

And finally in 2017, researchers salvaged yet another series of mosaic panels from the ancient Huqoq synagogue. This time around the depictions included – Greco-Roman sun god Helios in a quadriga (four-horse chariot) surrounded by symbolic zodiac signs, the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale (where the marine animal is shown to be swallowed by a larger fish, and the larger fish is being swallowed by an even larger fish), and the Tower of Babel being constructed by laborers. The leader of the excavation project, Jodi Magness, said –

One of the distinguishing features of the Huqoq mosaics is the incorporation of numerous classical (Greco-Roman) elements such as putti, winged personifications of the seasons, and — in the Jonah scene — harpies (large birds with female heads and torsos representing storm winds). The mosaics also provide a great deal of information about ancient daily life, such as the construction techniques shown in the Tower of Babel scene uncovered this summer.

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Month of Teveth (December-January) with the sign of Capricorn.

So from the archaeological perspective, the ancient Huqoq synagogue from 5th century is rightly considered to have one of the most extensive collections of Biblical stories (along with non-Biblical ones) being presented through mosaic art. And the good news for us history aficionados is that there are more even decorative floor pieces still left to be unraveled – with the researchers expected to return to the fascinating site in summer of 2018.

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Wood worker in the Tower of Babel scene.

Source: University of North Carolina / All Images Courtesy of Jim Haberman

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