A spectacular synagogue

Excavations in Israel have unearthed a 1,600-year-old synagogue, home to an exceptional set of mosaics.

The ancient village of Huqoq sits on a hilltop several miles from the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in north-east Israel. This region, Lower Eastern Galilee, is where Jesus is said to have spent much of his life in the early 1st century AD, and several centuries later, when the synagogue at Huqoq was built, the landscape would have looked much the same: a rural agricultural area dotted with Jewish towns and villages. By the 5th century AD, however, this area was under the rule of the Christian Byzantine Empire, a turn of events that is commonly believed to have had a negative impact on the region’s Jewish population. However, the discoveries at Huqoq throw this into question: here, it seems, at least one rural Jewish community was thriving.

The Late Roman synagogue at Huqoq is decorated with beautiful mosaics, many of which depict scenes from the Hebrew Bible. This panel shows the prophet Jonah being swallowed by three successively larger fish, surrounded by other sea creatures, both real and mythological. [Image: Jim Haberman]

Since 2011, excavations at the site have been carried out as part of a joint research project by several universities, led by Dr Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The team has just completed their 11th and final season of work at the site. Over the last decade or so they have uncovered evidence of multiple phases of occupation throughout history – from the remains of the late Ottoman-modern village of Yakuk (abandoned when war broke out in the area in 1948) to late medieval rebuilding projects, all the way back to the late antique Jewish settlement itself – but it is the synagogue at the heart of the village that has been the focus of excavations since 2014.

Marvellous mosaics

Huqoq’s synagogue is of a typical Galilean style, consisting of a rectangular basilica with a central nave surrounded by aisles, oriented towards Jerusalem (to the south). The structure is 20m long and 15m wide, and its construction has been dated to around AD 400. The building was once beautifully decorated, with colourful plaster on the walls and architectural elements, and the floors covered with ornate mosaics.

This mosaic, depicting the construction of the Tower of Babel and God’s resulting wrath, is one of several in Huqoq that include themes of divine punishment. [Image: Jim Haberman]

Despite the popular idea that ancient Jewish art was entirely aniconic, figured images are known from other synagogues in antiquity, but this is by far the most impressive collection ever found in Israel. As might be expected, most of the stories depicted come from the Hebrew Bible. Among the most captivating is a panel showing the prophet Jonah being swallowed by a series of three fish. The mosaic also features a variety of other fish and sea creatures, as well as fishermen carrying out their daily tasks, and three hybrid creatures, half-woman half-bird, which are reminiscent of the sirens or harpies of Classical mythology. Another powerful panel shows the construction of the Tower of Babel, and God’s punishment for this act of hubris. The mosaic highlights the chaos and violence of this scene, with workmen falling from the tower and fighting each other with their tools. The only known example of a comparable scene is found at the nearby synagogue of Wadi Hamam, suggesting the existence of a localised repertoire of shared themes and styles among Jewish communities in this area.

Many other biblical scenes and figures are depicted in Huqoq’s mosaics, including Noah’s ark, pharaoh’s soldiers drowning in the Red Sea, the biblical heroines Deborah and Jael, and Samson carrying the gates of Gaza on his shoulders, among others. Interestingly, many of the stories depicted have themes of divine retribution, which may be a reflection of the context in which they were created and the community’s dissatisfaction with their new Christian rulers.

A fascinating find

Many biblical stories and figures are depicted in Huqoq’s synagogue. In this panel, Samson carries the gates of Gaza on his shoulders. [Image: Jim Haberman]

Huqoq is home as well to the first example of a non-biblical narrative scene ever found decorating an ancient synagogue. The so-called ‘Elephant Panel’ consists of three horizontal sections, which show a narrative unfolding from bottom to top. The lowest register shows the aftermath of a battle, with slain soldiers, an elephant, and a bull, all felled by javelins. The middle section is made up of an arcade and features nine figures: in the central arch sits a white-haired, bearded man, and on each side of him stand four young men. The top register – the largest section – depicts an encounter between two groups of men. On the left-hand side are the young men and their white-haired leader from the middle register. On the right are soldiers in the same uniform as the group defeated in the bottom register, led by an individual wearing the dress and insignia of a king or emperor on a military campaign. The presence of battle elephants, the arrangement of the soldiers in a phalanx, and the leader’s diadem indicate that he is a Greek ruler rather than a Roman emperor or biblical figure. This scene depicts a critical moment when the two groups have stopped to watch the dramatic meeting between their leaders, who appear to be exchanging gifts, and represents the climax of the wider narrative told across the whole panel.

There is considerable debate surrounding what event is being portrayed in this mosaic. Suggestions include conflicts from the period of the Maccabean Revolt, the Seleucid siege of Jerusalem under Antiochus VII Sidetes, and (favoured by Jodi Magness) the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest. Regardless of which of these hypotheses are correct, it appears likely that this was a historical scene, real or imagined, from the late Classical or Hellenistic period. This is unexpected in a late antique synagogue, and indicates that Jewish interest in past events was not limited to the horizons of biblical narratives.

The ‘Elephant Panel’ is the first non-biblical narrative scene ever found in an ancient synagogue. The events depicted are still the subject of some debate, but the panel appears to be centred around the meeting of two important leaders and their followers. [Image: Jim Haberman]

The elephant panel and the wide range of biblical scenes depicted in the mosaics at Huqoq are changing what we know about decorations in ancient synagogues: clearly subject matter and thematic arrangement were more flexible than previously thought. The discoveries also tell us about local, regional, and interregional trends in late antique Galilee, from close links between neighbouring communities to elements shared with art across the Mediterranean.

With the exception of one mosaic, which was removed for conservation, all of these incredible artworks have been left in situ, and the site has been carefully backfilled to protect them. The results of the team’s extensive research will continue to be published over the coming months, and the State of Israel plans to open the site to visitors at some point in the future.

All images: Jim Haberman