Colorful remains of mosaics from a 3rd century synagogue in the ancient town of Majdulia are the earliest evidence of synagogue decoration in the Golan, according to a University of Haifa press release on Monday.
The rainbow tiles in the black basalt-stone synagogue shed light on a little-known but thriving Jewish community in the Land of Israel’s far north.
The ancient town of Majdulia was established contemporaneously with the fall of the Second Temple in the 1st century CE, a time period in which scholars had previously thought there was little Jewish presence in the area after the fall of Gamla — the Masada of the north — in 67 CE.
The newly uncovered mosaics may indicate that not only did the Jewish community continue, but it put much thought into decorating its public space.
“Our findings are among the earliest that have yet been uncovered that bear witness that already in the 3rd century, synagogues were beginning to undergo a conscious transformation” from synagogue as study hall to prayer hall, said excavation director Dr. Mechael Osband in a press release.
Among the scant mosaic remnants discovered at the 13 meter by 23 meter synagogue are animal legs and other portions of intricate designs. The fact that no complete image remains may point to a deliberate dismantling of the decorations, according to the press release.
However, the archaeologists see the lively decorations as pointing to a community that had its eye on transforming the more somber study hall typical to the early Roman period into an ornate public meeting hall.
“In the 3rd century CE, we see an interesting mix of the continuation of a tradition from Second Temple synagogues — for example the seating arrangement — and the tradition of a relatively unadorned architectural style, with the addition of some new elements that with time became common in synagogues, such as colorful mosaics including animals,” said Osband.
Excavations at Khirbet Majdulia, near today’s settlement of Natur, began in 2014 under Osband, a member of the Department of Land of Israel Studies, Ohalo College, and the University of Haifa’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology. In recent years he has been joined by Hebrew University’s Dr. Benjamin Arubas. Osband’s 2014 discovery of the Roman-period synagogue in a town that was abandoned circa 350 CE made headlines due to the paucity of similar prayer houses in the Golan, and in Israel in general.
“We know that synagogues at the end of the Second Temple period were largely used as places in which to learn Torah. Synagogues at the end of the Roman era, and especially during the Byzantine era, were used as prayer halls, a sort-of ‘Mini-Temple,’ and as such they are much more luxurious, and it is not unusual to find ornate mosaics,” said Osband.
The small settlement of Majdulia is north of the once booming regional council of Sussita. During the course of excavation, Osband uncovered some remnants dating to the Hellenistic era, but the vast majority of artifacts are from the Roman era. In addition to the synagogue, a potter’s kiln was discovered — the first one of the era to be uncovered in the area — as well as olive presses.
Due to the extreme destruction of the mosaic, until this past excavation season the archaeologists did not put the time and resources into the extremely tedious work of seeking still extant images, thinking them unlikely. According to Osband, only the patience of masters student Shalom Ariel brought the few images — evidence of a Jewish communal shift — to light.