The Huqoq Synagogue Mosaics

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Photo: Jim Haberman.

Archaeologist and art historian Karen Britt of the University of Louisville provides a detailed artistic analysis of a Huqoq mosaic featuring an inscription and two female faces. The excavation of the mosaic, discovered in the same floor as Huqoq’s Samson mosaic, is described by Jodi Magness in “Samson in the Synagogue” in the January/February 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Read Magness’s full article in the BAS Library.



The eyes that returned my gaze were set in a face that was vaguely familiar although much finer than most that I have seen in Israel and Jordan. “Who are you?” I whispered as conservator Orna Cohen and I looked down at the mosaic. The face belonged to one of two female heads in the mosaic flanking the Hebrew or Aramaic inscription in the northwest corner of the square. The other figure has not fared as well as her wavy-haired companion: Her image is substantially damaged, with nearly two-thirds of the mosaic missing. Although the setting bed under the mosaic extends across the whole square, indicating that mosaics once covered the entire area, only three fragmentary sections of the mosaic remain. The cause of the damage has not been determined. While we always want to find a perfectly preserved mosaic, it rarely happens and mosaic specialists have learned to make the most of what they have. In the case of Huqoq, the picture is far from bleak, as much can be learned from what has already been discovered.

The heads of the two female figures turn toward the inscription that separates them, providing a three-quarter (¾) view of their faces. Floral motifs in three shades of red rise from the tops of the gray nimbi surrounding their heads (we think of nimbi as haloes today, but in antiquity, they denoted distinction as well as sanctity). Floral motifs also emerge from the lower-left part of the nimbus of the wavy-haired figure. It is unclear whether the heads were parts of portrait-busts or full-length figures due to damage along the eastern and southern sides of this section of mosaic. The roughly jaw-length hair of the northernmost figure is parted in the center and falls in symmetrical waves to both sides. Her face is heavily outlined in black, and areas of deep shadow are created by rows of brown tesserae. The other (southern) female figure wears her hair in a top-knot secured by a black band. The same color palate—dark red, brown and black—is used for the hair of both female figures. It is difficult to overstate the quality of this section of the mosaic. The face of the wavy-haired woman is composed of an astounding 430 tesserae/dm². (A tessera is an approximately cube-shaped piece of cut stone, glass or other material used to form a mosaic. At Huqoq, the tesserae were set in approximately 2 centimeters of fine mortar on top of the bedding.) The size of the tesserae is an indication of the quality of a mosaic and thus its cost, but not its date. It is always preferable to date a mosaic based upon objective data such as coins or pottery, for which we have a firmly established chronology. However, in addition to these data, and especially in the absence of them, style (discussed below) is an important, albeit subjective, method of analysis.

This brings us back to the starting question: Who are the two women in the Huqoq mosaic? The inscription between them does not answer this question, although its content, which refers to rewards in heaven for good deeds on earth, might be an oblique reference to their identity. Could they represent female donors? In the Late Roman and Byzantine periods, prosperous Jewish and Christian women in this region were important donors to their religious communities, as indicated by inscriptions found in synagogues and churches.1 For example, a completely preserved Aramaic mosaic inscription from the fifth century in the Sepphoris synagogue records the donation of a father and his daughter: “Remembered be for good Yudan son of Isaac the Priest and Parigri his daughter. Amen Amen.”2 A fragmentary Greek inscription incised on a plaque from the sixth-century synagogue in Gaza begins: “[For the salvati]on of Jacob, Leaz[ar, and Mar]eina, having made a thanksgiving offer[ing to God and] to this holy place…”3 The donations made by these women funded the construction and adornment of these places of worship and supported their liturgical functions. While portraits of male and female donors have been found in churches, they have never been encountered in synagogues. If these are female donor portraits, their discovery at Huqoq would be a first!

A female donor portrait in the sixth-century chapel of the Church of Amos and Kasiseus, near Mount Nebo in Jordan, provides a useful comparison for our mystery ladies.4 Like the Huqoq figures, her head is surrounded by a prominent nimbus. She is elegantly attired and her jewelry—a tiara adorned with gems, pearl-drop earrings, necklace and a jeweled brooch (fibula)—is prominently displayed. Likewise, the Huqoq figures are nimbed, an earring is clearly visible on the wavy-haired woman, and the top-knot of the other woman is secured by a tiara studded with glass tesserae. The identification of the woman in the Church of Amos and Kasiseus as a donor is based upon a Greek inscription: “For the salvation of, and as a present of, your servant Sergius, the son of Stephanos, and Procopius, the son of Porphyria, and Roma, and Mary, and Julian, the monk.” I have suggested elsewhere that she is either Porphyria or Roma or Mary.5 In antiquity, portraits were viewed differently than they are today. While we expect portraits to bear a strong physical resemblance to the person represented, there were no such expectations in the Roman and Byzantine periods. The main concern was the depiction of a person’s social status, not verisimilitude. For now, the Huqoq women remain anonymous, but the possibility that they are donors is bolstered by the fact that both heads turn towards the inscription, underscoring their relationship to it. The female donors commemorated in church and synagogue inscriptions were likely local prosperous residents who were eager to display their status and piety to the community.

Another possibility is that the Huqoq figures are personifications of two of the four Seasons, a subject found in several Late Roman and Byzantine-period synagogues and churches. The floral motifs emerging from their nimbi are the strongest argument for this identification. The floral motifs differ from one figure to the other—a common characteristic of personifications of the Seasons, as seen in the bust-length depictions of the Seasons in the late fifth century Byzantine Church at Petra.6 Much closer to Huqoq, busts of the four Seasons appear in synagogues paved with mosaics that contain zodiac cycles. In the pavements of the synagogues at Hammath Tiberias (fourth century), Sepphoris (fifth century), and Beth Alpha (sixth century), the zodiac wheel is inscribed in a square panel, leaving triangular spaces (spandrels) at the corners that are filled with depictions of the Seasons. The Seasons are rendered in an individualized manner so that no two depictions are the same. Aside from the floral motifs, it is interesting that the hair-style of the Huqoq figure with the top-knot bears some resemblance to the personification of autumn (Tishri) in the Sepphoris synagogue mosaic.7 However none of the Seasons in the other synagogues has nimbi. Moreover, I am unaware of any parallels—in synagogues or churches—for the placement of the Seasons around an inscription as at Huqoq.

A second section of mosaic has been preserved, albeit in a fragmentary state, in the southwest corner of the square. This portion of the pavement contains the images of Samson and the foxes discussed by Jodi Magness.* An analysis of the style of these figures in conjunction with the foregoing consideration of the female figures in the northwest corner of the square permits a broader discussion of the style of the pavement that hints at its date. As mentioned by Magness, the tesserae used in the figure of Samson are significantly larger (ranging from 149 tesserae/dm² in his cloak to 179 tesserae/dm² in the belt) than those in the female figures (432 tesserae/dm²). Although it is possible that the difference in the size of the tesserae indicates earlier and later phases of installation, all portions of the mosaic floor at Huqoq appear to have been executed at the same time. Another possibility is that the difference in the size of the tesserae relates to cost and, consequently, the division of labor. In this case, the portion in the northern part of the square was funded by extremely generous donors who paid for a panel of extraordinary quality. However, this explanation does not seem plausible either.

The likeliest reason for the difference in the size of the tesserae is related to the subject matter. Samson’s monumental size necessitated the use of larger tesserae. This is corroborated by the fact that smaller tesserae (239 dm²) were used in the foxes and in the white background against which Samson is placed. The tesserae densities of the nearby Wadi Hamam synagogue mosaics, dated to the fourth century by the excavators, are lower, ranging from 129–218 tesserae/dm². However, the density readings for the figure of Samson are nearly the same at Wadi Hamam (169/dm²) and Huqoq—a similarity explained by the monumental size of Samson in both pavements.8 Despite the similarities in subject matter and the monumental appearance of Samson, there are interesting stylistic differences between the two mosaics. A more nuanced use of color and ornamental detail appear in Samson’s tunic at Huqoq. For example, a dark gray rope with a red tassel is suspended from the left side of Samson’s wide belt. The tassel falls slightly lower than the orbiculum. While at both Wadi Hamam and Huqoq the orbiculi are composed of red tesserae with geometric motifs inscribed in white, the design in the Huqoq orbiculum is more complex. Unlike the Wadi Hamam orbiculi, Huqoq’s has a bronze tessera at the center of the geometric motif. In addition to conveying status, the use of orbiculi on clothing was apotropaic (intended to ward off evil). By placing the roundels at the knees and shoulders of military garments, it was hoped that these vulnerable areas of the body would be protected. The use of a bronze tessera is significant: Mirrors in antiquity were made of highly polished bronze and were believed to deflect harm. Other stylistic differences between the Samson pavements include the use of “floating” ground lines for some elements in the mosaic at Wadi Hamam, which are absent at Huqoq. Unlike the Samson mosaic at Huqoq, at Wadi Hamam there are changes in perspective (the fallen figures between Samson’s legs and the weapons next to his foot are rendered in aerial perspective). How to account for the differences and similarities in the two pavements is a part of my ongoing research.

Although various sizes of tesserae were used in the mosaics at Huqoq, the overall style of the figures is consistent and, in my opinion, supports a fifth or sixth century date for their installation. The figures—female faces, foxes, and Samson—are heavily outlined in dark colors. They are flat and two-dimensional. Highlighting and shadow are created using bold strips of color instead of subtle gradations. For example, the shadowy folds in Samson’s red cloak are rendered by strips of darker tesserae that create a hard and linear appearance instead of soft and flowing. The same technique is used in the faces of the mystery ladies: Areas of shadow (alongside and beneath the nose; the part between lips) are depicted with strips of dark tesserae, while the apples of the cheeks are highlighted in patches of light red and the forehead in white. Careful attention has been paid to details such as the earring of the wavy-haired lady, the elaborate belt around Samson’s waist and the ornate orbiculum on his tunic. Furthermore, all of the figures are placed against a solid, white background without any indication of landscape or architectural setting. For example, there is nothing to suggest that the foxes are running through the fields of the Philistines into which Samson released them. They are not placed on a ground line but float against the background. Together these characteristics contribute to the denial of spatial illusion in the pavement. The stylistic qualities that characterize the mosaic at Huqoq are common attributes of fifth and sixth century figural mosaics in the Near East. While there are some similarities to the House of the Nile Festival mosaic at Sepphoris, the closest parallels in the region for the compositional arrangement at Huqoq are the fifth and sixth century pavements in Antioch, such as the Honolulu Hunt Mosaic and the House of the Worchester Hunt.9

Perhaps the most charming and frustrating motif found in the mosaic is also the most fragmentary: a single, delicately rendered ear of a feline located at the broken edge of the northeast section of mosaic, across from the fragment containing the inscription and female figures and oriented in the opposite direction. The tip of the ear breaks through the horizontal black band that frames the panel. Set against the white background of the pavement, the ear is composed of three shades of red tesserae (around 220 tesserae/dm²). The size of the tesserae and the sophisticated color palette used in this ear (!) hint at the beauty of what has been lost and offer an opportunity to imagine what might have been there.




* See Jodi Magness, “Samson in the Synagogue” BAR, January/Februrary 2013.

1. Recent studies on euergetism (donor benefactions) in Late Roman and Byzantine Jewish communities include: Susan Sorek, Remembered for Good: A Jewish Benefaction System in Ancient Palestine (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2010); Michael Satlow, “Giving for a Return: Jewish Votive Offerings in Late Antiquity,” in David Brakke, Michael Satlow and Steven Weitzman, eds., Religion and the Self in Antiquity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), pp. 91-108. For early Christian communities, see Kim Bowes, “Early Christian Archaeology: a State of the Field,” Religion Compass 2.4 (2008), pp. 575–619.

2. Zeev Weiss, Sepphoris Synagogue: Deciphering an Ancient Message through its Archaeological and Socio-Historical Contexts (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2005), p. 204.

3. I have used Satlow’s translation, “Giving for a Return,” p. 92. The inscription is discussed also by Steven Fine, This Holy Place: On the Sanctity of the Synagogue during the Greco-Roman Period (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), p. 103.

4. Michele Piccirillo, The Mosaics of Jordan (Amman: American Center of Oriental Research, 1992), p. 167.

5. Karen Britt, “Fama et Memoria: Portraits of Female Patrons in Mosaic Pavements of Churches in Byzantine Palestine and Arabia,” Medieval Feminist Forum 44.2 (2008), pp. 119–143.

6. Zbignew Fiema, “The Byzantine Church at Petra,” in Glenn Markoe, ed., Petra Rediscovered: Lost City of the Nabataeans (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), p. 246.

7. I am grateful to Zeev Weiss for sharing this observation in an email communication (July 3, 2012). For the full publication of the Sepphoris synagogue, see Weiss, Sepphoris Synagogue.

8. Uzi Leibner and Shulamit Miller, “Appendix: A figural mosaic in the synagogue at Khirbet Wadi Hamam,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 23 (2010), pp. 238–264; see pp. 260–261 for tesserae densities.

9. Christine Kondoleon, “Mosaics of Antioch,” in Christine Kondoleon, ed., Antioch: the Lost Ancient City (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 63–77; see catalogue entry 43, pp. 158–160.

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  • Benny says

    Dear Bibilcalarchaeologist,

    I and my family will be in Israel in this October. Can we visit Huqoq Synagogue? Can you give me the opening hours time table?

    We thank you very much for the information and our best regards to you.


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