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Obj. ID: 51867
Ancient Jewish Art
  Late Roman Synagogue in Huqoq, Israel - Mosaic Floor

© Jodi Magness, via Wikimedia Commons, Photographer: Haberman, Jim, 2012

Site

Horvat Huqoq is an archaeological site 25-30 dunams (0.025 – 0.030 square kilometers) in size, located three kilometers from the Sea of Galilee on a hilltop. It is mentioned in biblical, post-biblical, medieval, and modern texts as an agricultural village. Part of the archaeological site is covered by the ruins of Yaquq, a nineteenth to early twentieth-century village about 10 dunams in size which was lived in until 1948 (Magness et al. 2023, 48)

Synagogue

The synagogue was built in the pattern of a basilica that was 20 meters by 14.19 meters, with aisles to the north, east, and west sides around a central nave. The main entrance to the building faced south, towards Jerusalem, but there was also an entrance to the east. The aisles were separated from the nave by a Stylobate, raising them 0.2 meters above the synagogue center, and columns in the building indicate additions to the main floor, including a porch or courtyard and either a second-story gallery or a clerestory (a small second floor designed to let light in).

Two ashlar stones at the southern end of the nave create a step rising west to east, which were possibly the remains of a dismantled bema, and within the synagogue’s rubble excavators found fragments of a marble menorah.

Mosaics

The floors of the aisles and the nave were decorated with mosaic scenes. The mosaics were damaged in antiquity, possibly by an earthquake that occurred after the building was abandoned, so many of the scenes have been lost to time (Magness et al. 2023, 50). The mosaics of the nave, eastern aisle, and northern aisle have been published and will be described below, but as the mosaics in the west aisle have not been published, they cannot be described yet (Britt and Boustan 2021, 512).

Mosaics of the Eastern Aisle from south to north:

Samson and the Gate of Gaza Panel

This mosaic, oriented towards a viewer in the synagogue's nave, depicts a story out of Judges (specifically Judges 16:3) where Samson, after an encounter with a prostitute, flees from the city of Gaza while carrying the city’s gate-doors on his shoulders.

The preserved portions of this scene include Samson’s head, hands, neck, portions of his left shoulder, and lower torso, which together create an image of Samson as a massive figure wearing a white tunic, a thick belt, and a red cloak - garments worn by Late Roman and Byzantine soldiers (Magness et al. 2023, 50). On Samson’s shoulders are a pair of city gates (from context, the gates of Gaza), with a pair of horses and a pair of smaller male figures, presumably Philistines, nearby.

Samson and the Foxes Panel

As with the previous mosaic, this panel is oriented toward a viewer in the synagogue’s nave. Depicted in the surviving portions are two partial pairs of foxes, one of which preserved the torch the foxes are tied to, as well as the torso and thighs of a male figure, who from context has been determined to be Samson as well: one of his exploits involved tying torches to the tails of paired foxes (Judges 15:4-5). Samson wears similar clothes to those described in the Gates of Gaza mosaic, but here an orbiculum, a circular medallion, was also preserved on his tunic.

 Commemorative Panel

Unlike the Samson Panels, this mosaic is oriented toward a viewer in the east aisle looking into the nave (that is to say, one seeing this panel properly would view the Samson panels upside-down, and vice-versa). The panel is centered on a blue medallion with a partially preserved inscription in white Hebrew letters. It is theorized that this inscription either commemorates the builders of the synagogue, or possibly donors who contributed funds. The current translation, done by David Amit in 2013, is as follows (Amit 2013):

[וברובי]ן
[כל בני העיר?] שהן
מתח[זקי]ן בכל
מצות כן יהא
עמלכן ואמ[ן ס]ל[ה]
[ש]ל[ום]

Translation: And blessed / [are all the people of the town?] who / adhere to all / commandments. So may be / your labor and Ame[n Se]la[h] / [P]eace

The medallion is surrounded by a wreath with roundels at the three preserved cardinal points (it is assumed that the missing point also had a roundel), and each roundel bears a human face that looks inward toward the inscription; the two on the sides are female, and the one on top is male.

The wreath is held up by four male figures (referred to as atlantes) placed at the corners of the mosaic. Each wears a pair of pants belted at the waist and boots but displays a well-muscled upper body. They are connected by a floral garland that passes behind them, and each stands on a sphere that has a human face (or possibly a mask) which is in turn supported by a pair of putti, winged infants.

Elephant Panel

This panel displays three scenes in registers that increase in size from bottom to top and is oriented in concert with the Commemorative Panel (for a viewer in the eastern aisle facing the nave).

The bottom register depicts the aftermath of a battle, including a dead bull, elephant, and elephant rider.

The middle register depicts an arcade framing nine male figures: eight are standing with sheathed swords and the ninth, central, figure is seated on a throne carrying a scroll. This ninth figure is notably older than the others, as indicated by his white hair and beard. The figures are clothed in white and blue tunics and mantles, with the letter eta (the Greek equivalent of the letters H and ח) on them, indicating their high status (Magness et al 2023, 54). Additionally, each arch in the arcade is topped with an oil lamp.

In the upper register, two groups of men confront one another, each led by a single figure whose importance is emphasized by their central position in the composition, and their exaggerated sizes. The group on the left consists of eight young men carrying swords, and their leader is an elderly male – the same figures depicted in the middle register. They are dressed in the same clothes as they are below. The elderly leader points his right hand at the sky and holds something (possibly a coin or a sword hilt) towards the opposing leader, possibly in offering (Magness et al 2023, 55)

The group on the right consists of a phalanx of soldiers, a bull, and two elephants dressed for war, led by a figure dressed in the paraphernalia of a king or emperor on campaign. This leader gestures to the bull with his right hand and holds one of its horns with his left. The human figures are dressed in contemporary uniforms, rather than what Hellenistic era soldiers would have worn (this type of contemporization is typical in late antique art)

The lack of inscriptions in this panel has led to a plethora of interpretations of the identities of the depicted figures, including biblical scenes, scenes from the Maccabean revolt, the meeting of Alexander the Great and the Kohen Gadol, and the final conflict between the Seleucids and the Hasmoneans, an event that led to a military alliance between the two. Jodi Magness notes that the presence of the elephants, phalanx, and this leader’s diadem indicate that this is a Greek King and army, rather than a Biblical or Roman one (Magness et al. 2023, 55). However, if this panel does depict a non-biblical narrative, it would be unique as such in ancient synagogue art (ibid.).

 Mosaics of the Nave from south to north

Unlike the mosaics of the eastern isle, all the mosaics in the nave are oriented in the same direction, that of an observer from the south of the nave (where the main entrance to the synagogue was located). Additionally, all the panels are enclosed in a single border made up of alternating scenes of three-dimensional geometric shapes and animal chases.

Tower of Babel Panel

This biblical narrative (Genesis 11:1–9), an etiological myth used to explain why different peoples speak different languages, is depicted at the southernmost part of the nave. People of many nations, differentiated by their hairstyles, facial hair, clothing, and skin color, construct a massive square stone tower. Amid the construction, scenes of workers fighting and an individual falling from the tower indicate the chaos that comes from God making the workers speak different languages. A similar scene is found at the nearby late antique synagogue at Wadi Hamam (also in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee), but there the tower is depicted as polygonal (Magness et al. 2023, 62)

Jonah and the Fish Panel

The center of this panel depicts a large ship with five sailors, one of whom is lowering a looped rope into the water. Below and in front of the ship, Jonah’s legs protrude from the mouth of a fish, which is itself in a series of 3 fish, concurrently swallowing a smaller fish (or in the case of the last fish, Jonah). This depiction of Jonah being swallowed by three successive fish is paralleled in Islamic and Jewish sources in the medieval period, but this panel is the earliest definite depiction of Jonah in an ancient synagogue (Magness et al. 2023, 60-61)

Most of the remainder of the panel depicts maritime scenes, including various marine animals and scenes of men fishing or casting nets, but in the upper left-hand corner, three woman-bird hybrid creatures dance and play musical instruments on a storm cloud.

Helios and the Zodiac Panel

The zodiac, a popular motif in late antique synagogues, takes up the center of the nave. That being said, the composition style of the motif here is rare, only found here in Huqoq and at the synagogue at Yafia (in the lower Galilee, near Nazareth). The typical composition consists of two concentric circles, with the inner circle containing the image of Helios, and the space between the two circles being divided by twelve wedge-shaped sections, each with a different piece of the zodiac. At Huqoq and Yafia the inner circle still contains Helios, but the outer circle is made up of interlocking roundels, each decorated with a zodiac piece (Magness et al. 2023, 58). Unfortunately, the space between the circles was not preserved at Huqoq, so what took up this space is unknown.

Helios, at the center of the mosaic, rides a four-wheeled chariot pulled by four white horses. Helios himself didn’t survive to the present, so it is unknown if he was depicted as a humanoid like in the synagogues of Ḥammat Tiberias, Bet Alpha, and Naʿaran, or as a Sun Disk as in Sepphoris (ibid.). he was encircled by inscriptions in rectangular boxes, but the surviving examples are too fragmentary to translate or transcribe.

The roundels depicting the zodiac each contain a young, clean-shaven man representing the month, the name of the month, and their respective zodiac sign. The surviving identifiable roundels are Tishri, accompanied by a small figure carrying scales (Libra), Marcheshvan with a scorpion (Scorpio), and Tevet with a goat-fish hybrid (Capricorn).

The corners of the panel contained personified seasons the only fully preserved one being Autumn, who is depicted as a winged male dressed in a short tunic typical for manual labor. He holds grapes and a crook in one hand, a gazelle by the horns in the other, and a pair of figs are set next to him. This depiction of the seasons as male is unique in ancient synagogues; other synagogues depict them as female, and they usually are not winged (Magness et all. 2023, 59)

Pharaoh’s Army Drowning in the Red Sea Panel

This chaotic panel depicts soldiers, who in the narrative are Egyptian but here are in Roman military attire, being swallowed alongside panicking horses and overturned chariots. The chaos of the scene is striking, especially when compared to the Jonah Mosaic to the north.

This scene also appears in the mosaics of the late antique synagogue found at the nearby Wadi Haman, suggesting that this biblical story may have had local significance especially since, to date, these two synagogues are the only ones found to depict this narrative in their mosaics (Magness et al. 2023, 57). This corroborates the late antique rabbinic literature that attests to the popularity of this scene, particularly as an example of God punishing mankind’s hubris; a theme shared by the other narrative scenes in the nave (ibid. 57-58).

Noah’s Ark Panel

This panel depicts a scene from the story of Noah and the flood, where Noah gathers pairs of animals into an ark (Genesis 6:11-7:10). The ark, which from the surviving fragments seems to be depicted as a wooden box supported by legs, is surrounded by pairs of animals who are facing the central vertical axis of the scene, where the ark is. To the right of the ark is a structure with a red tile roof, whose relationship to the ark is unclear, as the connecting section of the mosaic was damaged.

Mosaics of the North Aisle from west to east

Unlike the other sections of the synagogue, where the mosaic panels fill their respective spaces, the northern aisle panels are organized in two rows of nine panels (for a total of eighteen panels), and the surviving eight are labeled with biblical quotations in Hebrew and Aramaic (Britt and Bousran 2021, 511-512). It should be noted here that the mosaics in this aisle are only recently documented, and more information may be forthcoming as research continues.

The Four Creatures of Daniel 7 Panels

The four westernmost panels depicted four figures from the same biblical source: Daniel 7, where he describes four beasts (Britt and Boustan 2021, 522-526).

The top-west panel, while mostly destroyed, contains the Aramaic inscription

קדמיתה [כאריה וגפין]
דינשר לה

Translation: The first [was like a lion but had] eagles’ wings (Daniel 7:4, translation via JPS, 1985)

The inscription, as well as a surviving lion’s tail, indicate that the panel once depicted a winged lion that faces the west (left) side of the panel, the first of Daniel’s beasts.

The panel beneath the winged lion depicts a bear-like creature walking towards the west. This creature has three black curved lines protruding from its mouth, which matches the text from Daniel 7:5. While no inscription was preserved in this panel, part of which was destroyed, it is likely that Daniel 7:5 was inscribed above the beast.

The panel next to the winged lion is missing in its entirety, but from the context of the other three panels described in this section, researchers assume it depicted the leopard described in Daniel 7:6.

To the east of the bear beast, a damaged panel depicts a boar-like creature with cloven hooves, a long pig-like snout, and a mouth with a protruding tusk, implying a boar-like beast. The top of this panel was destroyed, so the entirety of the beast cannot be compared to the fourth beast in Daniel 7:7 (whose distinction is having ten horns) and the inscription is missing, but Jewish sources began identifying the fourth beast with a boar beginning in the Roman imperial period, the first to fourth centuries CE (Britt and Boustan 2021, 525).

Fragmentary Panels

The four panels to the east of the beasts are extremely damaged, but surviving fragments appear to depict flora and animals (Britt and Boustan 2021, 531)

Male Youth with Leashed Animal Panel

The fifth panel in the upper row shows a young man leading a leashed animal, with a Hebrew inscription from the end of Isaiah 11:6:

ונער
קטון
נוהג
בם

Translation: With a little boy to herd them (Isaiah 11:6, translation via Revised JPS)

The youth wears a tunic decorated with red bands and orbiculi, gathered at the waist by a light red belt. Based on the context of the inscription, the beast he leads is likely a wolf, and there was likely a lamb held by a leash in the destroyed section of the mosaic (Britt and Boustan 2021, 531-532).

Two Spies Panel

To the east of the Youth and Wolf, a panel depicts two males carrying a disproportionately large cluster of grapes on a pole between them. The inscription, from Numbers 13:23, identifies the pair as two of the spies sent by Moses to scout Canaan returning from the Valley of Eshcol.

Showbread Table

Further to the east, in the top row, a panel shows the showbread table from the temple, identified by its inscription. The top of the table is tilted, so a viewer can see the tabletop. Around the table are other artifacts, possibly also having ritual significance (Britt and Boustan 2021, 545).

The Companions of Daniel Panels

Mirroring the four beasts on the western side of the aisle, the four panels on the eastern side are interpreted to depict a single narrative, also from the book of Daniel, where three of Daniel’s companions refuse to worship a golden idol and are subsequently thrown into a fire, which they miraculously survive. This interpretation is not definite, as the top right and bottom left panels did not survive at all, and the surviving panels are only partially preserved. Additionally, there are no inscriptions that survived to assist interpretation (Britt and Boustan 2021, 553-562).

The top-left panel depicts three figures, all pointing their right hands upward. Two can be identified as young men, but the third is entirely gone except for their right forearm.

The bottom right panel depicts three Roman soldiers, the center one with his right arm and hand extended. This central figure is interpreted as Nebuchadnezzar, who is often depicted in a late Roman Emperor’s military regalia on Christian sarcophagi (Britt and Boustan 2021, 560).

Summary and Remarks
Remarks

1 image(s)

sub-set tree:

Name/Title
Huqoq Late Roman Synagogue Mosaic Floor | Unknown
Object Detail
Monument Setting
Unknown
Date
Late 4th century CE
Synagogue active dates
Reconstruction dates
Artist/ Maker
Origin
Unknown |
Historical Origin
Unknown
Community type
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Congregation
Unknown
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Site
Unknown
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Unknown|
Period
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Period Detail
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Documentation / Research project
Unknown
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Shape / Form
Unknown
Material / Technique
Material Stucture
Material Decoration
Material Bonding
Material Inscription
Material Additions
Material Cloth
Material Lining
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Colors
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Weight
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Condition
Extant
Documented by CJA
Surveyed by CJA
Present Usage
Present Usage Details
Condition of Building Fabric
Architectural Significance type
Historical significance: Event/Period
Historical significance: Collective Memory/Folklore
Historical significance: Person
Architectural Significance: Style
Architectural Significance: Artistic Decoration
Urban significance
Significance Rating
1
Ornamentation
Custom
Contents
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Location of Torah Ark
Location of Apse
Location of Niche
Location of Reader's Desk
Location of Platform
Temp: Architecture Axis
Arrangement of Seats
Location of Women's Section
Direction Prayer
Direction Toward Jerusalem
South
Coin
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Colophon
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History/Provenance

Pottery, coins, and charcoal samples acquired during excavation indicate the late antique synagogue was built in the late fourth century CE. The time and reason the synagogue went out of use is unclear, and there is no evidence of any destruction of the building via fire. After it was abandoned, the building collapsed, possibly due to an earthquake (that this happened after the building was abandoned is known from a layer of debris found between the mosaic floor and the collapse layer). In the late medieval period, layers of fill were poured over the ruined synagogue to level it out and support a new floor for a new synagogue.

Excavations at the site began in 2011 under Dr. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and as of 2023 are ongoing.

Main Surveys & Excavations
Sources

Amit, David, “Mosaic Inscription from a Synagogue at Horvat Huqoq” The Huqoq Synagogue (Biblical Archaeology Society, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/inscriptions/mosaic-inscription-from-a-synagogue-at-horvat-huqoq/ (accessed September 13, 2023)

Britt, Karen and Ra’anan Boustan, “Scenes in Stone: Newly Discovered Mosaics from the North Aisle in the Huqoq Synagogue,” Studies in Late Antiquity, Volume 5, Number 4 (2021), 509-579.

Home (Huqoq Excavation Project), url: https://huqoq.web.unc.edu/ (accessed September 13, 2023)

Magness, Jodi, Shua Kisilevitz, Matthew Grey, Dennis Mizzi, Karen Britt, and Ra’anan Boustan, “The Ḥuqoq Synagogue Excavations: Report on the 2011–2018 Seasons,” in Ancient Synagogues Revealed: 1981-2022, ed. Lee I. Levine et al. (Jerusalem, Israel Exploration Society, 2023), 48-65.
Type
Documenter
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Author of description
Adam Frisch | 2023
Architectural Drawings
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Computer Reconstruction
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The following information on this monument will be completed:
Unknown |