A dazzling array of mosaics depicting biblical and historical scenes has been unearthed at a Late Roman-era synagogue in the Galilee’s ancient Huqoq village since 2012. With intricate attention to detail, each frame — until now kept under wraps — is worth thousands of words.
In conjunction with the publication in BASOR of a 70-page interim report of the excavations from 2014–2017, lead archaeologist Dr. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is permitting the rare release of never-before-seen full images of the startling scenes uncovered there.
The scenes vary from well-known religious stories such as Jonah and the Whale, Noah’s Ark, and Pharaoh’s soldiers being swept away by the Red Sea and swallowed up by dozens of fish, to the pagan zodiac at the floor’s center, as well as a portrayal of what may be the first purely historical non-biblical scene in a synagogue — complete with armored elephants.
In a phone conversation with The Times of Israel this week from the American Schools of Oriental Research annual conference in Denver, Magness said she is personally partial to the Jonah panel for its innate humor. In it, the prophet dangles out of the mouth of a Russian doll-like combination of three consequently swallowed fish as mythological harpies look on.
But, she admits, picking one mosaic is a bit like choosing a favorite child and most people focus on the elephant mosaic, which is “so spectacular.”
Complete with a standing army and decked-out military elephants, the elephant mosaic depicts an interesting tableau of two groups — one in armor and the other in white robes — which may be Alexander the Great, or perhaps a representation of the military alliance between the Seleucids and the Hasmonaean high priest, John Hyrcanus.
Throughout the flooring, there are realistic-looking animals, including horses, donkeys, bears, camels, leopards, lions, snakes, sheep, foxes, and ostriches, as well as dozens of fish and other sea creatures including a dolphin and a wavy-tentacled octopus. And there are also mythological beings such as cupids and harpies, which are used to represent wind in the Jonah panel. Sprinkled among the stories, there is plenty of transportation as well, including a four-wheeled chariot, several sea vessels, and the ark Noah built.
In one panel, the Tower of Babel is being constructed using a wide-variety of mechanisms and pulleys. Illustrating the strife that came hand-in-hand with its construction, fights break out in the background among people of differing skin colors, garbed in diverse clothing and with a variety of hairstyles.
With the release of the full depictions of the complex ensembles, certain themes are made more clear, such as the immense power and reverence accorded to water, as well as the well-grounded biblical and historical knowledge of the artisans.
“The synagogue just keeps producing mosaics that there’s just nothing like and is enriching our understanding of the Judaism of the period,” Magness told The Times of Israel last summer.
When still standing, the synagogue would have been a technicolor whirl of painted walls and columns, a perhaps cacophonous counterpoint to the detailed, colorful mosaic flooring. Remains of plaster chips show pigments including daubs of pink, red, orange, and white.
With all the colors, wall designs and detailed flooring, it would have been quite a standout sight some 1,600 years ago, suggested The Times of Israel this week.
Laughed Magness, “I think it would have been the world’s kitchiest synagogue.”
A kaleidoscope of incarnations
When in 2011 Magness began sifting through the rubble of the modern Arab village of Yakuk that stood at the site until a purposeful conflagration in 1948, she wasn’t hunting for the brilliantly executed colorful mosaics the site is now famous for, rather answers to a decades-long debate among scholars surrounding the dating of ancient Jewish houses of worship.
As detailed in the BASAOR report, in 1934, father of Israeli archaeology Eleazar Sukenik published a typology which assigned “Galilean-type” synagogues to the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Other Jewish houses of prayer that had apses, were labeled “Byzantine-type” and dated to the 5th and 6th centuries. Decades later archaeologists, including Erwin Goodenough and Michael Avi-Yonah, added a “Transitional (broad house) type,” which they dated to the 4th century.
Magness said that contrary to a common school of thought, she felt it problematic to use a synagogue’s architectural style as the basis for dating its period of construction and activity.
Magness felt archaeologists were overlooking important evidence that went counter to the relatively early dating of 2nd-3rd century many scholars were giving the Galilean type of Jewish houses of prayer, mostly found near the Sea of Galilee. Buildings such as the famous Capernaum synagogue, located 5km from Huqoq, had been dated based on their Roman style of architecture found in temples in Syria and Asia Minor.
At the same time, in some cases, said Magness, archaeologists disregarded artifacts discovered found under foundations which would push the building’s dating forward by several hundred years.
“I have spent the last 20 years picking through archaeological reports, including Capernaum, arguing archaeologists misinterpreted [evidence] and misdated” the synagogues, based on their architecture, she said.
The existential difference is whether these monumental buildings were constructed in an era of pagan Roman rule, or during the Christian Byzantine empire. The implications of when they were built reflects the status of the Jewish communities under each regime.
“Many scholars think the Jews suffered under oppression [during the Byzantine era], but if they are building these huge synagogues, that is clearly not the case,” she said.
Magness began to hunt for the site of an un-excavated synagogue to reach her own conclusions from her own evidence. In choosing to dig at Huqoq in 2011, she explains that her goal was to be able to excavate her own untouched synagogue and methodically analyze the related artifacts.
“My hope was to find the building and date it according the archaeological material,” she said. As stated in the BASOR report, Magness chose to excavate Huqoq “to clarify the chronology of Galilean-type synagogues, which she believes date to the 4th century c.e. and later, and thus contemporary with Transitional- and Byzantine-type synagogues.”
Eureka, and then some
The BASOR report details the different provisionally dated strata of the excavation, which spans from Hellenistic-period walls found in the village, to the Late Roman synagogue that according to archaeological evidence was constructed in the early 5th century.
Several hundred years later later, an equally fascinating 12th–13th century Medieval public building (potentially a synagogue) was built there, followed by an 18-19th open-air, tabun-filled bakery. The site’s final incarnation was as the modern Arab village of Yakuk, which was destroyed in 1948 and eventually used as IDF training grounds before being bulldozed in 1960.
The current excavation is co-directed by Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority and sponsored by UNC-Chapel Hill, Baylor University, Brigham Young University, the University of Toronto and others.
At Huqoq, her team found what she was initially looking for: ample evidence that dates the site’s synagogue to the early 5th century, which was confirmed through carbon dating. The first mosaic was uncovered in the dig’s second year and more have been found each year since.
Magness said it is still unknown how long the Late Roman prayer house was in use, or why it was abandoned. After it lay vacant for some time, it collapsed, possibly in an earthquake, but the topic requires further study she said.
In circa the 12th century, subsequent settlers at the site reused portions of the building materials for another monumental structure which was built atop the synagogue’s ruins. The mosaics would have been covered in the building collapse, said Magness, but the builders dug out some of the synagogue’s architectural pieces.
“We’re pretty sure they would have seen at least part of the mosaic,” she said, but they ignored it, having no use for a partially destroyed flooring in their new structure. “They reused the parts that were most easily reusable. Ancient people recycled regularly, and were smart about what they did use,” she said.
Through 2014, the team also excavated portions of the outlying Jewish village, which gave additional insight into the agricultural lifestyle of the people who lived and breathed there, as well as the structures they resided in.
“Archaeology involves a lot of interpretation,” Magness said, adding, “all science is interpretative.”
Magness said her findings do not prove that all Galilean-type synagogues date later than the 2nd-3rd century period currently assigned to them, but her study does suggest that the structures cannot be dated based on building style alone.
“My goals were to clarify the dating of Galilean synagogues and respond to a very widespread view that Jewish settlement declined under Byzantine Christian rule. I have to my satisfaction answered those questions to this point,” said Magness.