With Jerusalem off-limits, Judaism thrived on the Golan
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With Jerusalem off-limits, Judaism thrived on the Golan

During the Byzantine era, a quarter of Israel’s synagogues were located in three dozen Golan Heights communities. The Archeological Museum in Katzrin does them proud

  • The Golan Archeological Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Golan Archeological Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The menora from Ein Mashut and a blow-up of Um el Kanatir at the beginning of restoration, Golan Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The menora from Ein Mashut and a blow-up of Um el Kanatir at the beginning of restoration, Golan Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Umm el-Kanatir today (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Umm el-Kanatir today (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The lintel from Devora (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The lintel from Devora (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The garden of the Golan Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The garden of the Golan Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Less than a hundred years after the Romans quelled the Jewish revolt and destroyed the Temple, the Jews rebelled yet again. Led by Shimon Bar Kochba, a man many believed to be the Messiah, they fought for Jewish independence. The Romans quashed this revolt as well.

Jewish settlements in the south were destroyed and Jerusalem became off limits to the Jews. Many of those who survived moved to the Galilee, and during the 4th century, large numbers moved from the Galilee to the Golan. So it’s not surprising that during the Byzantine era, fully 25 per cent of Israel’s synagogues were located in nearly three dozen Golan Heights communities.

No wonder, then, that the Golan Archeological Museum in Katzrin – whose displays consist exclusively of finds from the region – features a rich and exciting collection of religious artifacts. Among them: a famous lintel from a rabbinical school in the village of Devora (Dabura), magical amulets from the town of Kanaf, sculpted Menorah decorations from ancient Yehudiya and Pik, a sarcophagus lid naming 26-year-old “Shimon son of Abun” found at Ein Nashut, and the unique capital that once topped a column at that village’s 5th-century synagogue.

You get a taste of antiquity the moment you enter the museum, where an impressive rock is on display. It boats a triad of gods: Venus, god of the moon; Apollo, god of the Sun, and a bearded Jupiter, father of all the gods. The carvings demonstrate a high level of artistry, for they were created with hammer and chisel on hard basalt.

The menora from Ein Mashut and a blow-up of Umm el Kanatir at the beginning of restoration, Golan Archeological Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The menora from Ein Mashut and a blow-up of Umm el Kanatir at the beginning of restoration, Golan Archeological Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

At this time, restoration is underway at the Umm el-Kanatir synagogue in the southern Golan Heights. Using the latest in technology, monumental arches and the splendid synagogue itself are undergoing reconstruction with the help of sophisticated 21st century techniques. Museum visitors are invited to watch a movie illustrating the goings-on and to view an “eagle” capital from the site.

Umm el-Kanatir today (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Umm el-Kanatir today (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Now head for the regular museum exhibits. Arranged chronologically, the museum’s first displays introduce you to prehistoric life in the region. Elephants roamed here in prehistoric times: an elephant tusk dating back nearly a million years is on display along with an oak branch found under the elephant’s skull. Settlers hunted for meat and gathered fruits, vegetables and grains growing in fertile soil. Among the fascinating collection of agricultural tools and hunting weapons in the museum is a stone implement used for digging out roots.

Several Chalcolithic (4500-3500 B.C.E.) sites consisting of nearly 40 houses were discovered in the Golan after the *Six Day War. Solid roofs and windows had not yet been invented, as you can see from the museum’s large model of a Chalcolithic home. Maximum sunlight was absorbed through the entrance, which always faced south. Walls made of goat and camel skins stretched upwards from low stone bases on all four sides of the dwelling.

Every family had at least one statue, and several of those uncovered during excavations are on display. Along with eyes and ears each has an enormous nose and is topped with a recessed offering bowl. Presumably these were gods related to agriculture. The giant nose may express what the ancients felt to be the life force, or the soul. Indeed, later Hebrew words for breathing and soul are almost identical: nishima and nishama.

Ask one of the museum staff to operate a special display on Rugem El-Hiri. This mysterious site from the Bronze Age, located in the Golan Heights, is explained with holograms and an audio-visual program.

An unusual exhibition consists of artifacts from the obscure Yeturian nation. A desert tribe mentioned in the Bible, the Yeturians set up a kingdom in the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon while the Nabateans were establishing themselves in Israel’s south and the Hasmoneans ruled the center. The Yeturians disappeared during the Byzantine era; their remains displayed here include a glass locket, a bell, and unique pottery.

Gamla – only minutes away from the museum – was a Jewish city which freedom fighters lost to the mighty Romans in 67 C.E. Exhibits from the long-deserted site include armor, coins and weapons left from the Roman-Jewish battles. Also on display are vases, colored glass, and a coin unique to Gamla bearing the inscription “For the Redemption of Jerusalem.” An extra attraction is a great movie on the fall of Gamla.

Focus at the museum is on Byzantine-era synagogues, whose remains can be examined closely. One particular column was first described in 1885 by researcher Gustave Schumacher, who found it the ruins of the Jewish settlement at Pik. After the Six Day War archeologists searched for the column at Pik, turning ruins upside down in their efforts – with no success. A few months later an army officer walking through a cemetery in the Syrian town of Kuneitra saw a pillar painted white. Rain had washed off some of the paint and he noticed writing underneath. The column that Schumacher had noticed at Pik had been removed from the site by the Syrians – along with other major artifacts.

The lintel from Devora (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The lintel from Devora (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A decorative lintel from ancient Devora is one of the most significant archeological discoveries in the Golan. In Hebrew, an inscription reads “This is the beit midrash (house of study) of Rabbi Elazar Hakapar,” a rabbi who figures prominently in the Talmud.

Stressing the virtue of humility, Rabbi Elazar Hakapar used the parable of a house and warned people not to behave like the lintel over the door. Instead, they should strive to become more like the doorstep, on which others climb. Ironically, what remained when the house collapsed was this lintel.

Among other displays of special interest are good luck charms, including a slab of tightly rolled copper which was probably carried on a chain around the neck. Inscribed in Hebrew, it sings the praises of God.

The garden of the Golan Archeological Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The garden of the Golan Archeological Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Outside in the garden stands a dolmen (Canaanite burial site) of the type scattered throughout the Golan, and decorative rocks discovered in fields and ruins. Sections of the garden are organized according to religion: Jewish, Christian, pagan and early Moslem.

Hours: Sun-Thurs 9:00-16:00, Friday 9:00-14:00 For special arrangements/hours call (in Israel) Phone: 04-6964664. Wheelchair accessible.

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

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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