Ninth season of excavations in the ancient synagogue at Huqoq reveals mosaic floor panels decorated with an unparalleled range of scenes
Dr Dennis Mizzi (Department of Oriental Studies, UM) is a senior staff member on the project. He supervises excavations in the northern area of the synagogue and is in charge of the publication of the stone and metal artefacts from the site.
A team of specialists and students led by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Jodi Magness has uncovered an unparalleled range of scenes decorating the mosaic floor of the Late Roman (fifth century C.E.) synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel’s Lower Galilee.
Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of religious studies in Carolina’s College of Arts & Sciences, along with Assistant Director Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University, focused this ninth season of the Huqoq excavations on the northwest part of the synagogue, where new mosaics were exposed.
Panels in the north aisle frame figures of animals which are identified by an Aramaic inscription as the four beasts representing four kingdoms in the biblical Book of Daniel. The inscription preserves the reference to the lion, the first of the beasts (Daniel 7:4). The second figure is Daniel’s second beast: a bear with three ribs protruding from its mouth (Daniel 7:5). Also represented is the fourth beast, described in Daniel 7:7 as having iron teeth. Daniel’s third beast – a leopard – is not preserved. These panels together with another one uncovered in the north aisle in 2018 which apparently depicts the three youths in the furnace (also from the Book of Daniel) point to an eschatological theme in some of the synagogue mosaics.
A large panel in the west aisle is divided into three registers (horizontal strips) containing rows of date palms. In the upper and lower registers, clusters of dates are being harvested by male agricultural workers wearing loin cloths, who are sliding them down ropes held by other men. The middle register shows a row of wells alternating with date palms. On the left side of the panel, a man in a short tunic carrying a water jar is entering the arched gate of a city flanked by crenellated towers. A Hebrew inscription above the gate reads “And they came to Elim” (Exodus 15:27), identifying this panel as a depiction of the spot where the Israelites camped by twelve springs and seventy date palms after departing Egypt and wandering in the wilderness without water. This is the first depiction of the episode of Elim ever discovered in ancient Jewish art. An adjacent panel previously uncovered in the nave shows the parting of the Red Sea, in which Pharaoh’s soldiers are being swallowed by giant fish (see below), suggesting that the Exodus from Egypt is another theme of the synagogue’s mosaics.
“The richness and diversity of biblical stories and other scenes depicted in the Huqoq mosaics is unparalleled,” said Magness. “They shed light on the way in which Galilean Jews in the later Roman period understood the biblical text.”
Mosaics were first discovered at the site in 2012, and work has continued each summer since then. The mosaics uncovered in the east aisle include panels depicting Samson and the foxes (as related in Judges 15:4); Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3); a Hebrew inscription surrounded by human figures, animals and mythological creatures including putti (cupids); and the first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue — perhaps the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.
The mosaic floor in the north aisle is divided into two rows of panels containing figures and objects accompanied by Hebrew inscriptions identifying them as biblical stories. One panel depicts two of the spies sent by Moses to explore Canaan carrying a pole with a cluster of grapes, labeled “a pole between two” (from Numbers 13:23). Another panel showing a man leading an animal on a rope is accompanied by the inscription “a small child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).
The mosaics in the nave (main hall) include panels portraying Noah’s Ark; the parting of the Red Sea; a Helios-zodiac cycle; Jonah (in which Jonah is being swallowed by three successive fish); and the building of the Tower of Babel.
“In addition to the diverse range of biblical scenes decorating the mosaic floor, the synagogue’s walls and columns were covered with colorful painted plaster, some of which has survived intact. Almost no examples of painted plaster still adhering to columns or walls are preserved other ancient synagogues in Israel,” Magness said.
Sponsors of the project are UNC-Chapel Hill, Austin College (TX), Baylor University, Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto. Students and staff from Carolina and the consortium schools participated in the dig. Financial support for the 2019 season was also provided by the Kenan Charitable Trust and the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Excavations are scheduled to continue in summer 2020. For additional information and updates, visit the project’s website: http://huqoq.web.unc.edu/.
Photo credit: Jim Haberman