An ancient Tiberias synagogue was extensively vandalized overnight Tuesday, causing irreversible damage and potentially necessitating millions of dollars in rehabilitation costs.

Police opened an investigation, and officials said they suspected ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremists who oppose archaeological excavations of ancient tombs were to blame.

“The damage is widespread… Some of the damage is irreversible,” said Shaul Goldstein, executive director of the Nature and Parks Authority.

The Hammat Tiberias site, which also serves as an archaeological park, boasts 1,600-year-old mosaics. The site’s two synagogues date from 286 and 337 CE, when Tiberias was the seat of the Sanhedrin rabbinical court.

Among the mosaics damaged was a panel showing an ark holding Torah scrolls with two seven-branched menorahs and other Jewish ritual objects at either side.

“It’s impossible to put a price on damage done to pieces of heritage from centuries ago… There is no justification for such a cheap shot against the fundamental values of our culture,” said Goldstein, adding that he hoped the police bring the culprits to justice for their crimes.

Zodiac mosaic floor at the Hammat Synagogue in Tiberias (photo credit: CC-BY-Bukvoed, Wikimedia Commons)

Zodiac mosaic floor at the Hammat Tiberias Synagogue (photo credit: CC-BY-Bukvoed, Wikimedia Commons)

Among other damage, the vandals smashed mosaics and sprayed graffiti that stated “on each grave — a site” and “a response over the years” — slogans apparently reflecting intolerance for archaeological work atop ancient graves.

If opposition to archaeological work was the motivation, however, the vandals irrevocably damaged and desecrated the very site whose sanctity they purportedly want to uphold, experts noted bitterly. The vandalism “destroyed one of the most magnificent synagogues in the country, which serves as an important center for research,” said Dina Avshalom-Gurney, the head archaeologist of the Eastern Galilee and Golan region of the Antiquities Authority.

Ancient Greek inscription on the mosaic floor of the Hammat Tiberias Synagogue (photo credit: Itai, Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient Greek inscription on the mosaic floor of the Hammat Tiberias Synagogue (photo credit: Itai, Wikimedia Commons)

“The damage is irreversible, it’s doubtful we will be able to see the mosaic like it was before… The mosaic floor was here for 1,600 years until these vandals destroyed so many years of history,” she added.

Hammat was discovered accidentally in 1920 during the construction of the Tiberias-Zemach road by the Jewish Labor Battalion. It was a breakthrough find not only because it contained a centuries-old mosaic floor but also because it was one of the first digs conducted under Jewish auspices.

Hammat comprises two synagogues; one is named for Severus, after a Greek inscription — “Severus, the pupil of the most illustrious patriarchs” — was found there.