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New mosaics discovered in synagogue excavations in Galilee depicting biblical stories

Excavations in the Late Roman (fifth century) synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel’s Lower Galilee have discovered ornate mosaics.

The excavations are directed by Jodi Magness, a professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill College of Arts and Sciences, along with Assistant Director Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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The mosaic panels decorating the floor of the synagogue’s nave (center of the hall) portray two biblical stories: Noah’s Ark and the parting of the Red Sea. The panel with Noah’s Ark depicts an ark and pairs of animals, including elephants, leopards, donkeys, snakes, bears, lions, ostriches, camels, sheep and goats. The scene of the parting of the Red Sea shows Pharaoh’s soldiers being swallowed by large fish, surrounded by overturned chariots with horses and chariot drivers.

“These scenes are very rare in ancient synagogues,” said Magness, Kenan Distinguished Professor. “The only other examples that have been found are at Gerasa/Jerash in Jordan and Mopsuestia/Misis in Turkey (Noah’s Ark), and at Khirbet Wadi Hamam in Israel and Dura Europos in Syria (the parting of the Red Sea).”

Huqoq mosaic- pair of donkeys in Noah's Ark scene - Photo credit Jim Hab
Huqoq mosaic- pair of donkeys in Noah’s Ark scene – Photo credit Jim Hab

Mosaics were first discovered at the site in 2012, and excavations have since continued each summer. In 2012, a mosaic depicting Samson and the foxes (as related in the Bible’s Judges 15:4) was found in the synagogue’s east aisle. The next summer, an adjacent mosaic was uncovered that shows Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3).

Another mosaic discovered and excavated in the synagogue’s east aisle in 2013 and 2014 depicts the first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue — perhaps the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.

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A mosaic panel uncovered in 2015 next to this scene contains a Hebrew inscription surrounded by human figures, animals and mythological creatures including putti (cupids).

“This is by far the most extensive series of biblical stories ever found decorating the mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue,” said Magness. “The arrangement of the mosaics in panels on the floor brings to mind the synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria, where an array of biblical stories is painted in panels on the walls.”

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Excavations are scheduled to continue in summer 2017. For additional information and updates, visit the project’s website: www.huqoq.org.

UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA – CHAPEL HILL

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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