Alexander the Great in an Ancient Synagogue?

Stunning Huqoq mosaic unveiled

Huqoq-mosaic-2014

Does this military figure depict Alexander the Great meeting with the Jewish high priest? The full Huqoq mosaic from a Late Roman–Byzantine synagogue can be viewed below. Photo: Jim Haberman.

A 1,500-year-old mosaic that might depict a meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest has been unveiled in full by National Geographic. The mosaic was unearthed during excavations of a fifth-century C.E. synagogue at Huqoq, a site in Israel’s Lower Galilee. Led by Jodi Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Huqoq excavations have each year revealed vibrant mosaic floors depicting a variety of scenes, from the exploits of the Biblical hero Samson to the Exodus and Noah’s Ark.

The possible depiction of Alexander the Great at Huqoq was first reported in 2014. In a Bible History Daily guest post, Magness and mosaics specialist Karen Britt described the magnificent scene:

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 … 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.

Now, National Geographic has published the Huqoq mosaic in full:

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Photo: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.

Because the mosaic doesn’t label the figures, the scene is open for interpretation. According to National Geographic, Magness and Britt diverge on their opinions of what the Huqoq mosaic portrays.
 


 
As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.
 

 
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This is one of two battle elephants who, along with a bull and a row of soldiers, accompanies what may be Alexander the Great. Photo: Jim Haberman.

Magness, National Geographic reports, believes the Huqoq mosaic, which should be read from bottom up, portrays Macedonian king Alexander the Great’s fourth-century B.C.E. conquests in the eastern Mediterranean. The top portion of the mosaic, Magness argues, shows Alexander the Great in a purple cloak meeting Jerusalem’s high priest, who is wearing a white tunic. While this meeting did not actually occur in history, the legend appears in the writings of ancient Jewish historian Josephus and in rabbinic literature.

“After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C.E., when his fame spread and his importance became clear because of the way that he changed the face of the Near East, the Jews—like other ancient people—sought to associate themselves with him and his greatness,” Magness told National Geographic. “That’s why stories like this legend began to circulate.”

On the other hand, Karen Britt, along with history scholar and fellow Huqoq excavation member Ra’anan Boustan, believes the Huqoq mosaic portrays Seleucid king Antiochus VII’s attack on Jerusalem in 132 B.C.E. The top portion, Britt and Boustan say, represents a meeting to discuss a truce between Antiochus VII in the purple cloak and John Hyrcanus I, the Hasmonean leader and Jewish high priest, in the white tunic.

“The Jews were frequently conquered by other people,” Britt explained to National Geographic. “The message here is that not only could they hold their own in battle, but they could also reach an honorable and mutually agreeable treaty with their overseers.”

Explore the stunning Huqoq mosaic further in National Geographic.
 


 

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.

Huqoq 2014: Update from the Field: Huqoq excavation director Jodi Magness and mosaics specialist Karen Britt discuss a new mosaic discovered during the 2014 excavation season. Could the mosaic be a depiction of the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest?

Jodi Magness Reflects on a Lucky Discovery: In her Archaeological Views column “A Lucky Discovery Complicates Life” in the March/April 2015 issue of BAR, Jodi Magness reflects on the consequences of discovering stunning mosaics at Huqoq.

Huqoq 2015: New Mosaics Unearthed at Huqoq Synagogue: The Huqoq Excavation Project has uncovered more stunning mosaics during the 2015 excavations in a fifth-century C.E. synagogue in the Galilee.

New Huqoq Mosaics: Noah’s Ark and Exodus Scenes
During the 2016 season at Huqoq, mosaics depicting two well-known Biblical stories were uncovered.
 


 

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  • Umran says

    I’m incline to believe that the figure is in fact Alexander the great. You can see ‘Alexander the great’ bowing with his right arm across his body which is a form of salute. The priest and the multitude are in white garments. The priest also points up indicating some kind of divine intervention that led to their meeting. According to Flavius Josephus, “for Alexander, when he saw the multitude at a distance, in white garments…he approached by himself, and adored that name, and first saluted the high-priest.

    I don’t understand why historians say that Alexander the great never went to Jerusalem. Just because he is not mentioned by Arrian, Plutarch etc does not mean it did not happen. They may have censored the incident since why would the Greeks want to mentioned that Alexander favoured the God of the Jews rather than Grecian Gods? Alexander was near Jerusalem after conquering Gaza so it would have been stupidity on behalf of Alexander if he had not tried to add Jerusalem to his empire.

  • Tor says

    This mosaic is most likely the depiction of when the High Priest Simon the Righteous met with Alexander the Great as was historically mentioned in Talmud Tractate Yoma : According to the Talmud and Josephus, when Alexander the Great marched through Land of Israel in the year 332 BCE, Simeon the Just, dressed in his priestly garments went to Antipatris to meet him (Yoma 69a), although Josephus (l.c. xi.8, § 4) states that Alexander himself came to Jerusalem. As soon as Alexander saw him, he descended from his chariot and bowed respectfully before him. When Alexander’s courtiers criticized this act, he replied that it had been intentional, since he had had a vision in which he had seen the high priest, who had predicted his victory. Alexander demanded that a statue of himself be placed in the Temple, but the high priest explained that this was impossible. He promised instead that all the sons born of priests in that year would be named Alexander (Lev. R. xiii, end; Pesikta Rabbati section “Parah”). … Logically it makes sense, since this is the only type of mosaic that would be allowed on a holy synaguoge floor.

  • Bruce says

    Ralph opens a large but interesting can of worms. In his link, Ralph points out a hostile scene in the mosaic, one that may indicate an encounter with the high priest and the slaying of soldiers on the mosaic’s bottom side, thus a beginning of the Jewish revolt against Rome, in contrast with Alexander’s friendly and productive encounter. And yes, the beard is significant, because Alexander and Antiochus are almost always depicted as beardless.
    In answer to Ralph’s opinion of the identity of Jesus, the purple robe worn by Messiah prior to his execution was not of Jesus’ choosing and this is clearly understood by anyone familiar with the early Christian writings. John 19 gives this description. “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns, put it on his head and dressed him in a purple robe.” The eventual charge by the rabid religious elite was that He claimed to be a king and that the chief priests said “we have no King but Caesar.” Pilate, who trod a very fine line as Rome’s governor of the region, had to give in to their demands and subsequently had Jesus crucified.
    In further reply to Ralph regarding Jesus’ identity, I quote from Dr Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s book ‘The Jewish Gospel of John’ on page fifteen ‘John’s’ gospel shows that it is the Judean authorities on trial. It is Jesus who has come as the covenant prosecutor to press charges against the evil shepherds of Israel ….and it is Jesus who has full power and authority.”
    As Ralph points out, this could well have been a scene depicting the beginning of the Jewish Revolt.

  • ralph says

    This is much more likely to be a depiction of a scene from the Talmud, where bar Kamza offers a sacrificial calf on behalf of the Romans, to rabbi Zechariah Abkulas (see Gittin 55-57). This was in about AD 68, just prior to the Jewish Revolt. But bar Kamza was being devious here, because he had cut the calf’s lip (you can see the mark on the mosaic), knowing that Zechariah would have to reject the blemished Roman offering – and thereby offend the Romans, and in turn precipitate the Jewish Revolt. This was one of the ways by which the Jewish Revolt was deliberately contrived.

    The question then becomes – who was bar Kamza. And the answer is quite surprising….

    http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/mistaken-identity-mosaic-israel-purported-show-alexander-great-some-not-so-020983?nopaging=1

    Ralph

  • Nancy says

    What about the three men in the upper left? One has his sword drawn, the next is in the process of drawing his, and the third man appears to be making off with a valuable.

    Is no one going to talk about this?

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