Rethinking Byzantine-era Judaism
By Ran Shapira
A row of artisans and laborers - one with a saw in his hand, another with a chisel, and others with various sized hammers - are depicted on the mosaic floor recently uncovered in a Roman- or Byzantine-era synagogue at Khirbet Wadi Hamam, on Mount Nitai in the Lower Galilee. The workers appear next to a very large building, which they seem to be constructing.
Because the image appears on the synagogue floor, the researchers have assumed it depicts the construction of an important Biblical structure. Is it the Temple, Noah's Ark, the Tower of Babel, or some other well-known work?
Dr. Uzi Leibner of the Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology and Scholion Interdisciplinary Research Center in Jewish Studies, who is leading the excavation, has no clear answer at this stage. What is clear is that the mosaic, constructed from very small stones - whose sides measure about four millimeters each - is unique. No such scenes have been found in other ancient synagogues or structures in Israel from that period. But which period exactly are we referring to - the Roman or the Byzantine? The dig at the synagogue is being carried out to answer that question.
To judge by the findings, the synagogue, which sits within the Arbel National Park, is a "Galilean synagogue" - a high-quality Romanesque structure with an elaborate facade facing toward Jerusalem and attractive stone carvings. Synagogues of this type were thought to date from the late Roman period, between the second and fourth centuries. However, in the last few years, researchers have discovered that synagogues of this type were built in the Byzantine era, too - between the fifth and sixth centuries.
The debate was sparked by the synagogue at Capernaum, a fine example of a Galilean synagogue that clearly was built in the fifth century. The findings from that synagogue and others led some researchers to consider the hypothesis that the Galilean synagogues were built mainly in the fifth and sixth centuries.
On the face of it, this theory contradicts everything known about Judaism in the beginning of the first millennium C.E., and its relations with the ruling empires at the time. The common wisdom is that Jewish settlement flourished in the Galilee in the late Roman era - Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi compiled the Mishna at Zippori, and remarkable public buildings were constructed in many Jewish communities. However, from the mid-fourth century, when the Christian Byzantine empire rose to power, Jewish life was hampered, and some of the laws at that time even forbade the establishment of synagogues.
However, the archaeological findings from Capernaum and other synagogues indicate that things were more complex than historical records may indicate. More evidence now supports the theory that most of the Galilean synagogues actually were built during the Byzantine period, and that their Romanesque components were initially parts of earlier structures.
The synagogue at Khirbet Wadi Hamam was large and elaborate. It had a long hall running from north to south, of which about one quarter was exposed in the last excavation season, with a southern facade facing Jerusalem. The hall contained three rows of columns, and had two rows of benches along the northern, western and eastern walls.
The uniqueness of the building lies not only in its mosaic floor, but also in its combination of basalt and limestone. The walls were built from layers of basalt topped by layers of limestone; the stone benches incorporated limestone as well. The researchers believe the limestone was integrated into the structure during a massive repair. As in other Galilean synagogues, this one also contains late Roman-era architectural details - most of them also from limestone. However, the researchers believe that the signs of renovation could indicate the structure was actually built at a later stage, and that these items actually were part of an earlier structure.
The synagogue lies inside a large village, of more than 50 dunams, one of the larger, late Roman-era and Byzantine-era Jewish villages discovered in the rural Galilee. It is located strategically above the source of the Arbel river and the ancient road that wound from the Kinneret basin to the Lower Galilee and from there, via the Beit Netofa valley, to the Mediterranean sea.
Not far away were two large, well-known communities - Kfar Arbel and Migdal - as well as the big Jewish centers of the period, Tiberias and Zippori. Despite all these facts, the original name of the community was not preserved there, and it is still unknown. Findings indicate the village was abandoned permanently in the fourth century. Researchers are hoping to learn at what stage the synagogue, with its unique mosaic floor, was built.
Judging by other buildings unearthed close to the synagogue - an oil press and a two-story dwelling - the residents of the village were fairly well-off. The homes in the community were built on terraces along the slopes of the hill, separated by lanes. Since the village apparently was abandoned in the fourth century - which contradicts the claim that the synagogue dates to the Byzantine era - that period's architecture can be examined without interference from later structures. Leibner believes the synagogue could be a test case that would help researchers improve their dating methods for Galilean synagogues. In the upcoming excavation seasons, he says he intends to find more clues that would provide a precise date, and thus possibly solve the riddle.
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