Mosaic Possibly Depicting Alexander the Great Found in Ancient Synagogue

Royal figure in Huqoq mosaic
A mosaic depicting a figure that might be Alexander the Great (photo by Jim Haberman, image courtesy Jodi Magness)

There’s a curious Jewish legend about Alexander the Great. The story goes that after taking Gaza, the infamous Greek conquerer met with the Jewish High Priest, sacrificed to the god of the Jews, and allowed them to live peacefully according to their ancestral customs. Whether or not it really happened, it appeared in historian Josephus’s first-century account of the Jews and has also been repeated in Rabbinic literature.

As it turns out, the tale might also have been illustrated in a strikingly well-preserved mosaic recently discovered in Israel. According to The Daily Mail, a joint team from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Israel Antiquities Authority that has been excavating ancient Huqoq since 2012 found the mosaic inside a 1,500-year-old synagogue there. Lead archaeologist Jodi Magness said that if the mosaic truly shows Alexander, it would be the first pictorial representation of a non-Biblical story ever found in a Jewish house of worship.

Detail, elephant mosaic, from the Huqoq Exploration Project, Jodi Magness Director.
A detail of the battle elephants (photo by Jim Haberman, image courtesy Jodi Magness)

The evidence seems convincing. The vibrantly colored mosaic depicts a meeting between two important men. The presumed high priest has gray hair and a beard and wears a white ceremonial tunic and mantel; he’s followed by men in similar dress with sheathed swords. The other man looks to be a mighty, bearded general. He’s clad in royal purple, leads a bull by its horns, and is accompanied by an impressive procession of soldiers and battle elephants. “Battle elephants were associated with Greek armies beginning with Alexander the Great,” Magness explained.

Whatever it reveals about the pervasiveness of Josephus’s story, the group’s findings are among the most fascinating archaeological finds to come out of Israel in recent years. In addition to the alleged Alexander mural, the recent excavation turned up images of mythological creatures, winged cupids with masks, roosters, muscular male figures wearing pants, and also plaster columns painted with an ivy-leaf design.

“The images in these mosaics — as well as their high level of artistic quality — and the columns painted with vegetal motifs have never been found in any other ancient synagogue,” Magness said.

Theater mask in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic.
A theater mask motif (photo by Jim Haberman, image courtesy Jodi Magness)
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