Noah’s Ark, splitting of Red Sea appear in newfound mosaic at ancient synagogue
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Noah’s Ark, splitting of Red Sea appear in newfound mosaic at ancient synagogue

Huqoq excavations in Galilee reveal more parts of 'most extensive series of biblical stories' from 5th century, archaeologist says

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

A fish swallows an Egyptian soldier in a mosaic scene depicting the splitting of the Red Sea from the Exodus story, from the 5th-century synagogue at Huqoq, in northern Israel. (Jim Haberman/University of North Carolina Chapel Hill)
A fish swallows an Egyptian soldier in a mosaic scene depicting the splitting of the Red Sea from the Exodus story, from the 5th-century synagogue at Huqoq, in northern Israel. (Jim Haberman/University of North Carolina Chapel Hill)

Excavations at a late-Roman era synagogue in the Galilee have unearthed more staggering mosaics depicting biblical scenes, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced this week.

The ongoing dig at the 5th-century CE Huqoq Synagogue has previously uncovered brilliant floors featuring people, beasts and heroes from antiquity never before seen in ancient Jewish houses of worship.

The excavation carried out by UNC’s Jodi Magness, a professor of archaeology, and co-directed by Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The new sections of the decorated floor feature two unmistakable biblical scenes: Noah’s Ark and the parting of the Red Sea from the Exodus story.

“The panel with Noah’s Ark depicts an ark and pairs of animals, including elephants, leopards, donkeys, snakes, bears, lions, ostriches, camels, sheep and goats,” the university said in a statement. “The scene of the parting of the Red Sea shows Pharaoh’s soldiers being swallowed by large fish, surrounded by overturned chariots with horses and chariot drivers.”

“These scenes are very rare in ancient synagogues,” Jodi Magness, the UNC professor who has headed the dig, said in a statement. “The only other examples that have been found are at Gerasa/Jerash in Jordan and Mopsuestia/Misis in Turkey (Noah’s Ark), and at Khirbet Wadi Hamam in Israel and Dura Europos in Syria (the parting of the Red Sea).”

The first section of the mosaic floor, found in 2012, depicted Samson setting the Philistines’ fields ablaze with flaming foxes, and in 2013 a panel was revealed showing Samson carrying off the gates of Gaza. In 2013 Magness’s team discovered the first non-biblical scene featuring elephants, possibly showing Alexander the Great’s army, the full extent of which was uncovered in 2014. In 2015 a Hebrew inscription surrounded by human figures, animals and mythological creatures including cupids came to light.

The Huqoq synagogue's 5th century mosaic, with the upper register showing a war elephant. (photo credit: Jim Haberman)
The Huqoq synagogue’s 5th-century mosaic, with the upper register showing a war elephant. (Jim Haberman)

“This is by far the most extensive series of biblical stories ever found decorating the mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue,” said Magness. “The arrangement of the mosaics in panels on the floor brings to mind the synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria, where an array of biblical stories is painted in panels on the walls.”

The mosaics have been removed from the site for preservation, researchers said.

Magness’s team plans to conduct additional excavations at Huqoq in 2017.

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