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The newest mosaic to be excavated from the late Roman synagogue at Huqoq is from the north aisle and depicts the spies of Moses carrying clusters of grapes to explore Canaan, as referenced in the Bible, Numbers 13:23 (all images copyright: Jim Haberman, via UNC-Chapel Hill and used by permission unless otherwise noted)

At the ancient site of Huqoq, near the Sea of Galilee in modern Israel, a number of stunning mosaics depicting biblical, astrological, and historical narratives have been uncovered in a Jewish village that flourished during the late Roman empire. The colorful and large number of mosaics found in a synagogue challenge traditional views about Jewish art of the period as symbolic rather than representational of biblical texts, bland, and in decline during the period.

Since 2011, Jodi Magness, an archaeologist and distinguished professor of early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, has directed students and researchers excavating the site of Horbat Huqoq (referred to as Huqoq) in Eastern Galilee. In 2012, during excavations at the site’s synagogue, rich polychromatic mosaics that vividly depict various scenes from the Hebrew Bible began to come to light. The scenes discovered this summer also have accompanying Hebrew quotations. One mosaic depicts the Greco-Roman sun-god Helios surrounded by the signs of the zodiac accompanied by personifications of the months, and another mosaic depicts an historical event that may involve Alexander the Great.

Month of Teveth (December-January) with the sign of Capricorn from the Huqoq synagogue

The discovery of these late antique mosaics is sensational due in part to the ways in which they challenge current scholarship and understanding of Jewish art created after the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the empire during the fourth century CE. Magness notes the ways they are shifting ideas of Jewish art of the period:

The mosaics decorating the floor of the Huqoq synagogue revolutionize our understanding of Judaism in this period … Ancient Jewish art is often thought to be aniconic, or lacking images. But these mosaics, colorful and filled with figured scenes, attest to a rich visual culture as well as to the dynamism and diversity of Judaism in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods.

Rather than being in decline, the Huqoq mosaics attest to an economically and artistically vibrant community proud of its religious identity despite the negative views of Judaism expressed by many early Christian authors.

Wood worker in the Tower of Babel scene

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Prof. Magness noted how such mosaic scenes are identified by the archaeologists working on site:

In most cases, the identification of the biblical episodes in our mosaic panels is obvious from the depictions (for example: pairs of animals in the Noah’s ark scene; Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders; Jonah’s feet dangling out of the mouth of a large fish). This summer’s panels are a bit different in that each one is labeled (in Hebrew) with the relevant biblical passage that identifies it (e.g. the Spies Panel is labeled with the phrase “a pole between two” from Numbers 13).

As with many Greek, Roman, and early Christian mosaics, labels and quotations worked together with an image to remind the viewer of the story or scripture.

Fish swallowing Pharoah’s soldier in the Parting of the Red Sea

Teams of artisans created stunning mosaics in workshops in the late Roman world. Nearby sites like Beit She’an and Beth’Alpha have revealed Jewish mosaicists who were often related by blood and actively worked in the area of Galilee. However, Magness notes that the Huqoq mosaicists are still an enigma:

We don’t know who the mosaicists were. We are pretty sure there was a local workshop, due to similarities with the mosaics at Wadi Hamam (another synagogue nearby), but it is also possible according to my mosaics specialist Dr. Karen Britt, that some of our mosaics (in particular the elephant mosaic) were made by non-local artists.

Panorama of the sixth century CE nave mosaics within the Beth Alpha synagogue which has a Jewish adaption of the zodiac wheel as well as a depiction of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22: 1-18) and a Torah scene (image via Wikimedia)

The most sensational mosaic yet found at Huqoq involves a possible depiction of Alexander the Great. As was reported in 2016, the fifth-century CE mosaic portrays a meeting between two high-ranking male figures. The one to the right appears to be a military general leading his troops. Since the panel is not labeled by inscriptions, archaeologists and art historians disagree about the identity of the figures. The rather smiley elephants geared up for battle have led some to suggest this is a depiction of the story of the Maccabees in the second century BCE, since Alexander’s successor dynasty, known as the Seleucids, were known to use elephants in battle. Britt and Ra’anan Boustan, who published the mosaic, identify it as an episode in Hasmonean history. However, Magness thinks it may be a depiction of Alexander. Stories of his meeting with Jerusalem’s high priest circulated and were later written down by the Roman-era Jewish historian Josephus in the first century CE, and are preserved in rabbinic literature and other sources.

Huqoq excavation group dig group in front of the Khazneh (the Treasury) at Petra (2018)

The Huqoq mosaics will likely help to change the way we understand Jewish art of the late Roman and early Byzantine periods. As Magness notes: “I hope people might learn from our discoveries about what a dynamic and interesting period this is — including the continued dynamism and diversity of Judaism against the background of the spread of Christianity.” She also has other aspirations for her dig that involve perceptions of the archaeological work currently being done in Israel: “It would be nice if the public in North America realized that Israel is a very safe place to visit and work. I often talk to students whose parents don’t want to let them travel to Israel because they think it is unsafe.” This discovery serves as a salient reminder that licensed archaeological fieldwork performed every year in Israel is an important way that both students and researchers can further understand the ancient world and challenge the ways we view the people of the past.

Sarah E. Bond

Sarah E. Bond is associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. She blogs on antiquity and digital humanities, and is the author of Trade...

7 replies on “Discovery of Jewish Mosaics in Israel Bring Color to Biblical Accounts”

  1. You are thief of history and archaeology, all those findings are of ancient Arab Canaanite , you steal it clearly.

  2. This is the Palestinian village of Yaquq ‘depopulated’ in 1948 and bulldozed into oblivion 1968 just in case anyone harbored any notions of returning. Maybe a little excavation of the rubble to see what Palestinian village life was like up to mid 20th century would also be of value.

    1. Clearly it was Jewish long before Arab colonization. Jews are the indigenous inhabitants of Israel. The written, archeological, and DNA record is very clear. And if you want to talk “depopulation”, that’s a two way street. Were are the once thriving Jewish communities in Alexandria, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad? Communities that existed before the Arab conquests of the 7th century. What happened to the land Jews used own in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt?

      Jews have one country. Arabs have over a dozen, but apparently that’s not enough.

      1. By your logic ‘clearly’ it was someone else’s then before it was Jewish. Maybe they can lay claim to it also.

        “Jews have one country”. Well Israel have made it clear with their recently passed Nation-state Bill that all others are not welcome/wanted. Hmm JAG? I’ve seen this before.

        1. If the Cannanites were still around to protest I am sure they would, but they were a semi-mythical people from the Bible which isn’t the best historical record.

          “Nation-state Bill that all others are not welcome/wanted”

          Not actually what is says at all. Go back and actaully read it. Israel is the only country in the middle east that has Jews, Muslims, and Christians practicing their cultures openly.

          Plenty of Arab nations refer to the “Arab people” in their founding documents, but of course, Jews get held to a different standard when they do the same.

          Again, what happened to all the Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa? You seem to be avoiding that question. They only had Israel to flee to. A country Arab nationalists were trying to destory. How convenient: Purge your Jews then try and destroy the one safe haven they have to go to.

          1. The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

            The Arabic language has a special status in the state; Regulating the use of Arabic in state institutions or by them will be set in law.

            The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.

  3. These mosaics are of Arabs, Greeks and Roman’s who hijacked Judaism after the black Jews fought the Roman’s and eventually dispersed to KEMET -EGYPT AND ETHIOPIA. THE ORIGINAL JEWS ARE BLACK. JESUS WAS A BLACKMAN ..HE LOOKED LIKE HOW A BLACK FALASHA ETHIOPIAN JEW LOOKS. HE DID NOT LOOK LIKE AN ARAB OR CAUCASIAN. WHITE PEOPLE EVE STOLE THE BLACK MAN’S HISTORY AND IDENTITY. THE racist AshkeNAZI – Russian Jews who occupy Israel today have no connection to the indigenous Black Jews of the Land of Judah. The Roman’s brought in these Arab-Palestenians into Israel to repopulate the Land of Judah some converted to Judaism thus u have Sephardic Jews but that does not mean they are indigenous to Land of Judah. Its important we don’t let these racist imposters Jewish bullshitters like Netanyahu and his people re-write anf Steal black history and culture. The same way they stole Rock N Roll nf other black music and culture and put a white face on it..is the same way they stole have Judaism, Christianity and other black religions philosophy, and culture. Caucazoids have been stealing black man’s ideas and concepts for thousands of years.

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