Recently Discovered Mosaics Offer Fresh Insight Into Life In Ancient Israel

The mosaic panel depicting Moses' scouts returning from Canaan with giant grapes. Jim Haberman/UNC-Chapel Hill

About 1,600 years ago, the Galilee region of modern-day northern Israel was under the rule of the Christian Roman Empire. Historians had long speculated that the Jewish communities in the area were somewhat stifled during this period of harsh Byzantine oversight, yet the ongoing archaeological excavation of the ruins of a 5th-century synagogue implies the opposite: Semitic arts and culture were continuing to flourish.

The site, known as Huqoq, contains the most vibrant and diverse collection of mosaics ever found in a synagogue, according to a statement by the research team from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In the six years since the dig began, project lead Professor Jodi Magness and her colleagues have revealed gorgeous tiled panels on the structure’s floor depicting various scenes from the Hebrew Bible and a tableau theorized to document the famous meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.

“The mosaics decorating the floor of the Huqoq synagogue revolutionize our understanding of Judaism in this period,” said Magness. “Ancient Jewish art is often thought to be aniconic, or lacking images. But these mosaics, colorful and filled with figured scenes, attest to a rich visual culture as well as to the dynamism and diversity of Judaism in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods.”

After returning to the site this summer to investigate the synagogue’s north aisle, the team discovered two more stunning panels.

The first, labeled “a pole between two” in Hebrew, illustrates a scene from The Book of Numbers, 13:23, wherein scouts sent by Moses – after the Jewish exodus from Egypt – to explore the land of Canaan (the name for an area corresponding to some or all of modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan) return from their mission bearing bunches of grapes so large and juicy that they had to be carried on a stick by two men.

The other panel shows a child leading a roped animal and contains the inscription “a small child shall lead them”, referencing the passage Isaiah 11:6.

In addition to these works of art, the team found intact colorfully painted plaster on the synagogue’s columns, a rare sight in such an old structure, and an inscription reading “Amen selah”, which translates to ‘Amen forever’.

Previously uncovered mosaics, since transported away from the site for closer study and preservation, have shown Noah’s Ark, Jonah, Egyptian soldiers being swept away during the parting of the Red Sea, an intriguing Greek-inspired zodiac cycle, the Tower of Babel, and an assortment of human figures, animals, and mythological creatures.

An astoundingly well-preserved mosaic depicting the Greek astrological sign of Capricorn, marked with Tevet, the 10th month of the Hebrew calendar. Jim Haberman/UNC-Chapel Hill

Speaking to National Geographic, Magness confirmed that work will pick up again in the summer of 2019.

“I can't say what we expect to find, because everything we're finding is unexpected.” 

A fish swallowing one of Pharaoh's soldiers - a scene from Exodus. Jim Haberman/UNC-Chapel Hill

 

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