In the land of ancient prayer
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In the land of ancient prayer

Ruins from over 90 synagogues have been uncovered in Israel -- some restored, some barely ever visited. Here are five awe-inspiring trips through the sites of Sabbath past

Marut (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Marut (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

From a distance, it looks like just another pile of basalt rocks. Get a bit closer, however, and you are in for a surprise: those stones once belonged to an elegant synagogue in the ancient Jewish village of Ein Nashut.

Located near a flowing spring, Ein Nashut was one of hundreds of Jewish towns that flourished in the land of Israel thousands of years ago. Ruins from over 90 ancient synagogues have been uncovered over the years, quite a few of them as little-known or as little-visited as the Jewish house of worship at Ein Nashut.

None of the following are inside official National Parks or Nature Reserves, so if you live in Israel, or are touring the country, you can take a look any day, any time, for free.  The one exception is the synagogue at Marut, where, due to military limitations, you can stop in only on the Sabbath.

Described below are just a few of our favorites:

1) Ein Nashut, Golan Heights, Northwest of Katzrin, off Route 9098

After its destruction in the 7th century, Ein Nashut was not resettled. Thus, although most of the antiquities were stolen or damaged, there is still plenty to see. A few artifacts, like a stunning capital from the synagogue featuring both a seven-branched and a nine-branched menorah, are on view at Katzrin’s Golan Archeological Museum.

Ein Nashut (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ein Nashut (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A path leads through raspberry bushes and across a stream (on a plank) until the synagogue comes into sudden view in a deserted field. Coins were buried inside the synagogue foundations, perhaps as good luck charms, so experts have determined that the synagogue was built in the year 450. From other coins, discovered on the grounds, we learn it was in use at least until the year 600.

Many of the pedestals and benches have been quite well-preserved. And although this was probably one of the smallest of Golan synagogues, its sculptured capitals are some of the region’s finest. Remains from several oil presses scattered nearby tell us that Ein Nashut, like other Golan communities, made a living from the production of olive oil.

2) Umm El-Kanatir / Rehav’am’s Arches, Golan Heights, Southeast of Katzrin, off Road 808

More Jews lived in the Golan Heights during the Byzantine era than at any other time in Israel’s history. One especially prosperous little community was located on a steep slope along the Heights. As yet no one knows its name, but the nearby spring is called Umm El-Kanatir or “Mother of the Arches” for a triple-arched structure above the spring’s waters.

The village’s magnificent two-story synagogue, erected in the 5th century, was demolished in the earthquake of 749. Fortunately, although discovered in 1884, access was so difficult that its ruins remained almost untouched.

Restoration began in 2003, and is ongoing. The process is exciting: antique restoration expert Yeshu Dray and his team of archaeologists and engineers are using the latest and most sophisticated technology available to learn the position of each individual stone and to return it to its former location.

Early on, the site was officially named for Rehav’am (Gandhi) Ze’evi and is called Rehav’am’s Arches. An Israeli war hero, Knesset member, and former Tourism Minister, Gandhi had a special interest in Jewish history. He was assassinated by Arab terrorists in 2001.

Today, visitors can take steps down to this fascinating site, which is open to visitors on and off — if no one is there, which can happen, you look only from outside. Already, the walls are up, and so are the arches. How exciting, to see with your own eyes what a synagogue looked like in ancient times!

There are picnic tables and portable toilets next to the parking lot.

Lintel from Dabura (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Lintel from Dabura (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

3) Devora (or Dabura, as it is commonly known) Synagogue, Golan Heights, North of Katzrin along a riverside trail

Devora was a thriving Jewish town with handsome houses and wealthy residents dating back to the 2nd century C.E. More recently, the site hosted a small Bedouin village whose homes were made of basalt rock, many of them from the original Jewish dwellings. These stones had been carefully hewn centuries earlier and were decorated with Hebrew inscriptions and ornate drawings.  Among them was an ornamental lintel above the entrance to a house of study.

One of the most important discoveries regarding Jewish life in the Golan during the Byzantine period, the lintel is on display at the Golan Archaeological Museum. Its Hebrew inscription reads “This is the school (beit midrash) of Rabbi Elazar Hakapar.” It was this rabbi who wrote, as an ancient Jewish source tells us: “Love peace and abhor dissension.”

4) Marut, Galilee, near Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar

Sometime in the 12th century, an earthquake rumbled through the Galilee and destroyed Marut, a prosperous Jewish town with a 1,400-year-old history. The synagogue collapsed, the houses tumbled down and residents fled, leaving behind an unprecedented treasure trove of golden coins.

David mosaic, Marut (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
David mosaic, Marut (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

At least that’s what experts assume must have happened. How else to explain why the synagogue pillars all fell at the same exact angle, and why nearly 500 coins remained behind in the synagogue storehouse?

Among the remains are a large cemetery with mausoleums, and the pillars, walls and mosaic floors of the synagogue. One extraordinary mosaic depicts a young man, presumably David, and a spear, shield and helmet. These are the weapons David took from the slain Goliath, after the famous battle in the Elah Valley.

5) Maon Synagogue, South of Kibbutz Nirim, on the Negev’s coastal plain.

It is common knowledge that Jewish communities thrived in Israel’s north during the Byzantine era. What many people do not realize, however, is that there were also prosperous Jewish towns and villages in Israel’s south throughout the same period. One such community was Maon, whose synagogue was discovered by chance in 1957 as workers paved a new road and their tractors stumbled into the mosaic floor.

The Jewish National Fund developed the area around the Maon ruins as a recreation area, and alongside the archaeological remains are water, foliage, and picnic tables.

Most impressive is the mosaic floor, which originally featured five long rows with colorful medallions. Although two of the rows were destroyed accidentally during the floor’s discovery, this is a mirror mosaic, and you can guess what appeared on the left side by looking at the right.

Medallions in the middle row include containers, such as baskets, vases, a cage, and bowls, filled. And each container was filled with fruits, liquids, or animals. The ark stood at one end of the synagogue, facing Jerusalem (northeast). Nearby a gold Menorah (candelabrum) is worked into the mosaic design, its stand created to resemble a lion’s legs.

Above the mosaic Menorah is an Aramaic inscription, written with Hebrew letters that even Israelis will find difficult to decipher.  Repeated mistakes in lettering and language indicate that the artisan didn’t understand Aramaic. In fact, as there are similar mosaics on period church floors uncovered nearby, the design may have been prepared in a Gaza workshop which created mosaics for pagans, Christians and Jews alike.  Thus the artist probably wasn’t even Jewish.

Accessible to wheelchairs.

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If you need help with directions, feel free to contact us through our website: http://www.israeltravels.com.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a private tour guide.

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