Jews in Roman Turkey

Jewish presence uncovered at Limyra, Turkey

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2015.—Ed.


Fragments of chancel screens with seven-branched menorahs and other Jewish symbols on them were uncovered in a Jewish building at Limyra—in Roman Turkey—by Martin Seyer and his excavation team. Photo: Courtesy Martin Seyer

Located on the coast of southwestern Turkey, Limyra has a long, rich history—although the site now lies in ruins. Occupied for more than a millennium, it served as the home for many different religious groups. A recent archaeological discovery at Limyra suggests that a Jewish community also lived there.

Martin Seyer of the Austrian Archaeological Institute explains the history of the site and shares an update about recent excavations at Limyra, Turkey, in his article “Mysterious Jewish Building in Roman Turkey” in the January/February 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Limyra, Turkey, was first settled in the sixth century B.C.E. During the fourth century B.C.E., it was the largest city in Lycia (a region on the southern coast of Anatolia). Limyra and its surrounding region have roughly 400 tombs divided among five necropoleis. This is the largest number of tombs of any Lycian city. The site also has temples from the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Several centuries later, in the Byzantine period, Limyra served as the seat of a bishop. Three basilical churches, including the Episcopal (Bishop’s) Church from the late fifth or sixth century C.E., stood in the city at that time.

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Necropolis I is the most famous necropolis surrounding Limyra, Turkey. It has nine impressive Lycian tombs. Photo: Courtesy Martin Seyer

In the midst of these pagan and Christian influences, it appears that there was also a Jewish presence at Limyra, Turkey. In a building recently excavated by Martin Seyer, chancel screens with Jewish symbolsmenorahs, a shofar and a lulav (palm branch)—have been uncovered. In a later period, these screens were broken and reused as paving stones.

In the same building, close to the discovery spot of the chancel screens, is a water basin. With plastered walls and a floor of marble slabs, this basin was fed by rainwater. A low stone bench rests against one of the walls. Could this basin have served as a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath?

With its Jewish features, could this structure have been a synagogue? Martin Seyer clarifies that although it is not possible to create a precise stratigraphy for this building because of the high groundwater level, there are still some reasons to interpret this structure as a synagogue:

In short, it appears that this building had features of a synagogue in both an early and late phase. The chancel screens that were laid as paving in the vestibule indicate that the water basin can be viewed in connection with a Jewish structure. Even if these slabs were laid in secondary usage to raise the floor level against the gradually rising groundwater, they nevertheless indicate that a synagogue was once located in the immediate vicinity. These slabs are without doubt remnants of screens that separated the Torah shrine from the rest of the hall. Such chancel screens have been found in many synagogues near the Torah shrine. It is therefore not improbable that the building partially excavated in Limyra was itself a synagogue.

This building with its Jewish features is the only attestation of a Jewish community in Limyra, Turkey. Previous to its discovery, the only other indicator that there were Jewish inhabitants at Limyra was a solitary Greek inscription on a rock tomb that reads, “Tomb of Iudas.” The recently excavated building with Jewish features shows that there were enough Jewish inhabitants to justify a synagogue.

To learn more about Limyra, read the full article “Mysterious Jewish Building in Roman Turkey” by Martin Seyer in the January/February 2016 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Mysterious Jewish Building in Roman Turkey,” by Martin Seyer in the January/February 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on December 21, 2015.—Ed.


Learn more about the Jewish presence in Roman Turkey and synagogues in the BAS Library:

Paul’s Journeys Special Collection

Rachel Hachlili, “Synagogues: Before and After the Roman Destruction of the Temple,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2015.


Posted in Post-Biblical Period, The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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7 Responses

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  1. AF says

    Is it just me, or do the terms “Roman” and “Turkey” when paired together sound conspicuously odd in a chronologically divergent sort of way?

  2. Jacques says

    I left a critic so far I can still remember what I am doinf! and it doesn’t seem to have been edited…I criticized effectively that absurd denomination but it vexed abd hurt the…Redaction
    Turks invaded Anatolia around 12 and 13th centuries and Ottomans Osmanlis established a domination Occupation until they were Stopped by Europe in Lepante and Vienna and Balkans…Turks whose dictatorship since then, seems to be in accordance with Strategical and Fancy History of the US Administration views…so is Anatolia at roman times, become Turkey in deference to crass ignorant american Readers!

  3. Paul says

    We need not neglect the achievements of the Ottoman Empire’s delicate balance between the religious minority communities that, though constrained by taxes by a top-heavy bureaucracy, they nonetheless retained their uniqueness and autonomy, while a non-partisan police force composed of an elite force of Greek mercenaries known as Janissaries kept the peace. The Seljuk Turks who founded the Ottoman Empire were themselves a part of the military force that served as mercenary units composed of slaves from Central Asia that fought in the service of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad because the Caliph couldn’t count on support from the local tribes to maintain the balance of interests within the empire (not unlike the model in the the film “Dune” where the emperor of the galactic order of planetary dynasties relies on an elite force of soldiers conditioned on the prison planet Salusa Secundus who are known as “Sardaukar”).

  4. Paul says

    The administration of Anatolia under the Byzantine Christian Empire was also a balancing act between adherents of different beliefs so we don’t know if the Jews in 5th century C.E. Limyra abandoned their synagogue to the rising water table that the Emperor Justinian apparently dealt with by building a bridge in the vicinity, or perhaps the Jewish population was reduced on account of the Black Plague, or possibly the synagogogue was confiscated as a result of Justinian’s oppressive decrees enacted against non-Christian subjects within the empire, as the account of Procopius of Caesarea testifies:
    “Now the shrines of these ‘heretics,’ as they are called,… contained wealth unheard of…. So the Emperor Justinian began by confiscating the properties of these sanctuaries, thus stripping them suddenly of all their wealth” (“Texts and Traditions; “A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism,” by Lawrence H. Schiffman, p.593).

  5. Paul says

    I was off about a century, whereas this synagogue is thought to have existed in the 5th century, the reign of Justinian I was during the 6th century. Since the late 4th century only the orthodox Nicene Creed was considered the only recognized form of Christianity decreed by Emporer Theodosias I, and during the mid-5th century the “Theodosias Code” was enforced by Emporer Theodosias II which accuses those who have not adopted the state-approved religion as being “so demented, so damned by the enormity of strange savagry, that, when he sees the heaven’s with incredible swiftness define the measures of time within their spaces under the sway of the divine guidance, when he sees the movements of the stars which control the benefits of life, the earth richly endowed with the harvests, the waters of the sea, and the vastness of this immense achievement confined within the boundaries of the natural world, he does not seek the author of so great a mystery, of so mighty a handiwork…” (“Texts and Traditions” p. 584).
    The image of Christ as having a cosmic aspect like the Roman god Zeus was popular in the eastern Byzantine Empire, with the designation “Pantocrater” meaning “Almighty” that is equivelant to the divine name “Shaddai” in the Old Testament. Byzantine Emporers were also depicted with a halo like the Almighty.

  6. Rob says

    Somewhere, somewhere out there, there has to be a good Roman.

  7. Paul says

    “Is there no longer any wisdom in Teman?” (Jeremiah 49:7) So goes the refrain against the kingdom of Edom which would later symbolize Rome in post-Second Temple period Judaism.
    A closer examination of the term “God Almighty” is actually two divine names consisting of “El” and “Shaddai” that are sort of just lumped together as in “May El Shaddai grant you compassion” (Genesis 43:13). However it is in the blessing of Jacob that we see the name “El” could be a generic name for “god” as in “from the god (el) of your father … the Shaddai…” (Genesis 49:25). The definite article “et” which means “the” is what establishes the divine name Shaddai as an official deity of the patriarchs, as it is written in Exodus 6:3.
    According to the book of Zohar (1:247b), the “et” in “Et Shaddai” (The Almighty) is composed of the letters alef and tav, the first and the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, thus symbolizing the entire 22 letters. In Genesis 1:1 it states “In the beginning God created the heavens (et ha-shamayim) and the earth (et ha-arets).” The definite article “et” symbolizes the Hebrew alphabet with the written word of the holy scripture as deriving from heaven and the orally transmitted interpretation of scripture as being the earthly manifestation of the Divine.
    In “The Zohar, vol. 3″ by Daniel Matt, p. 517, note 937, it mentions “the Christian parallel in Revelation 1:8; ‘I am the alpha and omega.'” This verse also contains the divine name Pantocrater, or Almighty. In the next verse Revelation 1:9) the author John describes his exile in a penal colony on the island of Patmos “for having preached God’s word (written Torah) and witnessed for Jesus (oral Torah).”

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