The ancient Huqoq synagogue continues to reveal its plethora of astounding mosaics

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The ancient synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel’s Lower Galilee, has 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 relates to how 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.  As for the historical side of affairs, in the later era of the Romans and the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine), 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, a feature that was never found before in canonical Galilean synagogues. Essentially, the researchers have hypothesized that these vibrant artworks rather mirrored the thriving nature of the Jewish people in the 5th century Levant, which rather contradicts the popular notion relating to their decline under Christian rule.

Jodi Magness, the leader of the excavation project, said –

The mosaics decorating the floor of the Huqoq synagogue revolutionize our understanding of Judaism in this period. Ancient Jewish art is often thought to be aniconic, or lacking images. But these mosaics, colorful and filled with figured scenes, attest to a rich visual culture as well as to the dynamism and diversity of Judaism in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods.

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To that end, in the newest discoveries (of 2018), the archaeologists came across an arrangement of panels with pictorial depictions and Hebrew inscriptions. One panel with the label ‘a pole between two’ represents a biblical scene from Numbers 13:23, with the accompanying images depicting two spies sent by Moses to explore Canaan carrying a pole with a cluster of grapes (pictured above). Another panel, referring to Isaiah 11:6, has the inscription ‘a small child shall lead them’. The concurrent pictorial panel depicts a youth leading an animal on a rope. On one end of the eastern aisle, the researchers were further able to unveil a fragmentary Hebrew inscription with the phrase ‘Amen selah,’ meaning ‘Amen forever’. These incredible discoveries were complemented by the rare 1,600-year-old finds of intact columns bedecked in colorful, painted plaster.

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Samson carrying the gates of Gaza.

Now going down the chronological line, 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 to 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 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. Back then, 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 are shown in the Tower of Babel scene uncovered this summer [2017].

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

So from the archaeological perspective, the ancient Huqoq synagogue from the 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 the summer of 2019.

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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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About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.