Animals marching onto Noah’s Ark and the parting of the Red Sea feature in two mosaic floor panels discovered in a Roman-era synagogue in Huqoq, Israel. The mosaics, dating to the 5th century CE, were beautifully preserved beneath the stone and dirt that had built up on the synagogue’s floor over the centuries. They’re also ornately detailed: In the Red Sea scene, a huge fish swallows up a soldier while the Pharaoh’s army flails in the water. In the second panel, pairs of donkeys, bears, leopards, lions, ostriches, humpbacked camels, elephants, sheep, goats, and snakes march to safety from the Great Flood, illustrating scenes from the book of Genesis.
The excavation at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village located three miles west of Capernaum and Migdal (Magdala) in the Galilee region of Israel, has been ongoing since 2012. The synagogue, built in the Late Roman or Byzantine period, has proved to be a trove of ancient mosaicked art. A consortium of universities, led by Dr. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have uncovered several other striking mosaics over the past five seasons. They picture, among other things, Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his back (Judges 16:3), Samson and the foxes, and a triumphal parade with elephants.
These new finds are fairly unique among art found in ancient synagogues. “You can see the pharaoh’s soldiers with their chariots and horses drowning, and even being eaten by large fish,” Magness told National Geographic of the newly discovered mosaics. “I know of only two other scenes of the parting of the Red Sea in ancient synagogues. One is in the wall paintings at Dura Europos [in Syria], which is a complete scene but different from ours — no fish devouring the Egyptian soldiers. The other is at Wadi Hamam [in Israel], but that’s very fragmentary and poorly preserved.”
Located in the nave, the synagogue’s central area, the mosaics face north. They likely would have been the first thing visitors saw after entering the structure’s main door from the south.