New mosaic panel discovered in Huqoq synagogue

A magnificent mosaic panel has been unearthed by a team led by Professor Jodi Magness from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The discovery took place at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village located in Israel’s Lower Galilee. The mosaic, dating back to around 400 C.E. during the late Roman period, adorns the floor near the main entrance of the synagogue.

During the eleventh and final season of the Huqoq excavations, Professor Magness and Assistant Director Dennis Mizzi from the University of Malta concentrated their efforts on the southern part of the synagogue’s main hall, also known as the nave.

The newly revealed mosaic panel features a prominent centerpiece—an enigmatic Hebrew inscription encircled by a wreath. On either side and below the wreath, an Aramaic inscription lists the names of either the donors who funded the synagogue’s mosaics or the artists responsible for creating them, requesting that they be remembered favorably. Lions with their forepaws resting on bulls’ heads flank the wreath. Surrounding the entire panel is a decorative border showcasing predatory animals pursuing their prey.

This season’s excavations have also brought to light additional portions of mosaic panels discovered in 2012 and 2013. These panels depict the stories of Samson and the foxes from Judges 15:4 and Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders as mentioned in Judges 16:3.

Among the newly exposed sections are depictions of a Philistine horseman and a deceased Philistine soldier exhibiting a remarkable classical face.

Detail of one of the mosaics. Credit: Jim Haberman

In 2022, the archaeological dig at Huqoq uncovered a mosaic panel in the southwest aisle of the synagogue. Divided into three horizontal strips, or registers, this panel portrays an episode from Judges chapter 4. It depicts the biblical prophetess and judge Deborah seated beneath a palm tree, observing Barak with his shield. Additionally, it shows the Kenite woman Jael driving a tent stake through the temple of the Canaanite general Sisera, who lies dead on the ground with blood flowing from his head. These mosaics are the earliest known depictions of the heroines Deborah and Jael.

The extensive excavation project at Huqoq has yielded numerous historically significant discoveries, including:

  • A Hebrew inscription encircled by human figures, animals, and mythological creatures like cupids.
  • The first non-biblical narrative ever found adorning an ancient synagogue, potentially depicting the legendary encounter between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.
  • A mosaic panel illustrating two of Moses’ spies carrying a pole with a cluster of grapes, referencing Numbers 13:23.
  • Another panel featuring a man leading an animal with an inscription from Isaiah 11:6 stating, “a small child shall lead them.”
  • Animal figures identified by an Aramaic inscription as the four beasts representing four kingdoms from the book of Daniel, chapter 7.
  • A large mosaic panel in the northwest aisle depicting Elim, the place where the Israelites camped by 12 springs and 70 date palms after leaving Egypt and wandering in the waterless wilderness mentioned in Exodus 15:27.
  • Depictions of Noah’s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, a Helios-zodiac cycle, Jonah being swallowed by three consecutive fish, and the construction of the Tower of Babel.

Researchers have discovered evidence indicating that the synagogue was reconstructed and expanded during the early 14th century C.E. in the late medieval/Mamluk period. This development likely occurred due to the establishment of a new international highway connecting Cairo and Damascus, which ran adjacent to Yakuk (Huqoq’s medieval name). Additionally, the rise of a tradition associating the nearby Tomb of Habakkuk with Huqoq attracted late medieval Jewish pilgrims to the area.

In the 2022 and 2023 excavations, a vast stone-paved courtyard surrounded by a colonnade of columns was unearthed to the east of the synagogue. This courtyard was repurposed during the late medieval period, with a massive vaulted structure of unknown purpose constructed on top of it.

Upon the conclusion of the final excavation season, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Keren Kayemet Le’Israel (Jewish National Fund) will take over the excavated area with plans to develop it into a tourist attraction.

Source: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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