The Huqoq Excavation Project is excavating a fifth-century C.E. synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient village in Israel’s Lower Eastern Galilee located three miles west of Magdala (home of Mary Magdalene) and Capernaum (where Jesus taught in the synagogue). Below, excavation director Jodi Magness and mosaics specialist Karen Britt discuss a new mosaic discovered during the 2014 excavation season.
The discoveries in the 2014 excavations at Huqoq prove that there really is a first time for everything. Excavations in 2012 and 2013 revealed that the fifth century C.E. Huqoq synagogue was paved with stunning mosaic floors, including the exploits of the Biblical hero Samson—the first depiction of these episodes ever found in an ancient synagogue in Israel.
Part of another mosaic panel discovered in 2013 is divided into three registers (horizontal strips) containing male figures and animals, including elephants. This mosaic differs in subject, style and quality from the Samson scenes (see BAR January/February 2013 and September/October 2013). In June 2014, we uncovered the rest of this extraordinary panel. The bottom register shows a dying soldier grasping his shield as he falls and a bull pierced by spears, with blood gushing from his gaping wounds. In the middle register, the arches of an arcade frame a seated elderly man and the young men who flank him. Lighted oil lamps are shown above each arch. The top register, which was revealed in its entirety this summer, depicts an encounter between two large male figures. One figure is clearly intended to represent a military commander and ruler: He is bearded and has a diadem on his head, is outfitted in ornate battle dress, and wears a purple cloak (see accompanying photo). This figure leads a large bull by the horns, and he is accompanied by a row of soldiers arranged as a Greek phalanx and by battle elephants with decorated collars and shields tied to their sides. The commander/ruler is nodding to a bearded, elderly man wearing a ceremonial white tunic and mantle. The elderly man is escorted by young men holding sheathed swords or daggers who are also dressed in ceremonial white tunics and mantles.
Read Jodi Magness’s “Samson in the Synagogue” in the January/February 2013 issue of BAR and “Scholar’s Update: New Mosaics from the Huqoq Synagogue” in the September/October 2013 issue of BAR for free in the BAS Library.
Figured scenes are not uncommon in ancient synagogue art, but all of the examples discovered until now depict stories from the Hebrew Bible. The identification of the figures in our mosaic is unclear, as they are unlabeled and there are no stories involving elephants in the Hebrew Bible. Because there are no parallels for this mosaic in other synagogues, its meaning is not immediately obvious. However, battle elephants were associated with Greek armies following the conquests of Alexander the Great. Therefore, our mosaic might depict the legendary meeting between Alexander and the Jewish high priest, different versions of which are preserved in the writings of Flavius Josephus and in rabbinic literature. It is also possible that this scene is connected with the Maccabean martyrdom traditions, as we suggested previously. Happily, we now have promising new material with which to move forward in our research on this unique mosaic, images of which will be released at a later date together with a comprehensive study that considers possible interpretations.
In the meantime, the mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Excavations at Huqoq will continue in summer 2015.
Read more about the Huqoq excavations in Bible History Daily:
A Samson Mosaic from Huqoq: A Bible History Daily introduction to the Huqoq excavations.
Mosaic Inscription from a Synagogue at Horvat Huqoq: Huqoq excavator David Amit provides a translation of the mosaic text between two female faces in the Huqoq synagogue.
The Huqoq Synagogue Mosaics: Huqoq mosaics specialist Karen Britt provides a detailed artistic analysis of a Huqoq mosaic featuring an inscription and two female faces.
New Huqoq Mosaics: The 2013 excavations revealed additional depictions of Samson in the Bible and a possible portrayal of a scene from the Apocrypha.