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Ancient Mosaics Shake Up Archeologists

Ian Harvey

In Huqoq, an ancient village in Israel’s lower Galilee region, researchers discovered mosaics in a 5th century synagogue in 2012. This find is incredibly exceptional; the scenes depicted in the mosaics are rarely found in such a setting (i.e. in a 5th century synagogue) and in such good condition. Only a handful have been found before.

According to archeologists, the elaborate mosaics, located on the floor of the synagogue, are scenes from the Old Testament in the Bible—Although, it should be noted that since this is a synagogue and therefore Jewish, a more accurate phrase would be “stories from the Torah.” But I digress.

The mosaic scenes show Noah’s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, Samson with his foxes (and another scene in which he is carrying the gate of Gaza), and the flight from Egypt, to name just a few. In the scenes regarding the flight from Egypt, the artist(s) took care to put in details such as the Pharaoh’s soldiers being swallowed by fish and overturned chariots with horses running loose.

In one section of the mosaics, there is a Hebrew inscription that is surrounded by human figures, animals (including elephants, leopards, monkeys, lions, and ostriches), and mythological creatures.

The mosaics that were found first are all located in the eastern aisle of the synagogue, and initially, archaeologists were uncertain whether they would find any in the temple’s nave or central areas. But then they discovered the mosaic with Noah’s Ark, which faces north and would have been the first thing that visitors saw upon entering the synagogue.

Since the initial discovery, every summer has seen continuing excavations on the site, revealing more images. The dig is a group effort of four universities: Baylor University, the University of North Carolina, Brigham Young University, and the University of Toronto.

Not all the scenes are drawn from the Bible. The site is home to the first non-Biblical mosaic ever found in an ancient synagogue—the scene depicts the meeting of Alexander the Great and an unnamed Jewish high priest. This is interesting, as researchers explain that this particular synagogue dates back to the time when the Roman Empire ruled the area. As historians will note, the relationship between Jews and their Roman rulers was often not a peaceful one.

Jodi Magness is the current director of excavations. She is also the professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences. It was she who said during an interview with National Geographic that the scenes they found are rarely located in ancient synagogues. “I know of only two other scenes of the parting of the Red Sea in ancient synagogues,” Magness said. “One is in the wall paintings at Dura Europos [in Syria], which is a complete scene but different from ours—no fish devouring the Egyptian soldiers. The other is at Wadi Hamam [in Israel], but that’s very fragmentary and poorly preserved.” Furthermore, the mosaic of Noah’s Ark is equally rare—there are only two comparable mosaics found in Jerash, Jordan and Mopsuestia, Turkey, respectively.

Nathan Elkins is another expert currently working at the site. He is a coin specialist, working to protect the ancient coins found from looting and smuggling. “The ancient coins at Huqoq, which I study, span 2,300 years at the site and are critical for our knowledge of the monumental synagogue and the associated village,” said Elkins, who holds a PhD and is an assistant professor of art history,

In order to guarantee the conservation of the mosaics, they have been removed from the site as they have been discovered, and the site remains closed to the public. For now, the plan is to continue the excavations until the site has nothing else left to hide. Researchers are already getting a list of who will be on-site next summer.


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News