Alexander the Great in an Ancient Synagogue?

Stunning Huqoq mosaic unveiled


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:


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.

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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.

Huqoq 2017: Mosaics of Jonah and the Whale, the Tower of Babel and More: The 2017 excavation season at Huqoq unearthed more stunning mosaics depicting Greco-Roman and Biblical scenes, including the story of Jonah and the whale and the construction of the Tower of Babel.

Huqoq 2018: Mosaic Depicts Israelite Spies: The 2018 season revealed more Biblical mosaics, including one referencing Numbers 13:23.


12 Responses

  1. ralph ellis says:

    None of the interpretations of this mosaic given thus far are credible. Why would Alexander the Great or a Roman Emperor be depicted as wearing the Jewish payot, or side-lock of hair? Alexander the Great Jew?

    It would appear obvious to myself that the mosaic depicts a famous scene from the Talmud, where bar Kamza gives an imperfect calf from Emperor Nero to the Jerusalem priesthood, hoping it would be rejected in order to provoke the Jewish Revolt. (And he succeeded, which is why bar Kamza and Rabbi Zechariah Abkulas were blamed for causing the Jewish Revolt).

    The question then becomes, who was bar Kamza. In the Talmud bar Kamza is blamed for starting the Jewish Revolt. In Josephus Flavius’ Jewish War, it was the Adiabene monarchy who started the Jewish Revolt (Monobazus and Kenadaeus). However, in Syriac history the Adiabene monarchy are said to be the kings of Edessa. Ergo, via this roundabout investigation, we can safely assume that bar Kamza was actually King Manu VI of Edessa – who was the leader of the Jewish Revolt along with Kenadaeus.

    This is why the character on the right wears Roman armour, a royal diadema headband, a beard, a purple cloak, and the Jewish payot side-lock – because this was standard Edessan royal attire. (According to the Talmud, the Edessan monarchy became Nazarene Jews in the mid 1st century, so would have worn the payot.) So why do the historians interpreting this mosaic, not know of this famous scene from the Talmud?

  2. Shoshana says:

    To me the scene has so much of Hannukah story in it. Johannan the high priest in white robe starts the revolution by slaying a Greek soldier sent to compell Jews to sacrifice animals to idols in a Jewish village. Selucid Greek armies identified by elephants (did Alexander wage war with elephants?) Macabees holy army in white robes, leader points heavenwards in famous ‘Whoever is for G-d follow me’ cry. Seated men possibly 5 sons of Johanan who lead prolonged battles. Eight oil lamps representing 8 lights of Hannukah miracle. Slain soldiers/ weapons at bottom representing defeated armies.

  3. 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.

  4. Tor Marquis 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.

  5. brucem58 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.

  6. ralph ellis 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….


  7. Tenney Naumer 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?

  8. Mark Bocija says:

    To Bruce’s point, when Alexander shaved is not really pertinent. By the 5th century CE the image of the beardless Alexander was a visual topos, as was the war elephant, regardless of whether or not these are accurate historical references. One point in favor of identifying the figure as Alexander is the growing popularity of the Alexander Romance by the fourth century. The earliest versions off these exploits are in Greek from 3rd century but certainly by the 5th century CE (the date suggested for the mosaic) many of these were in circulation in Greek, Latin, Georgian, Syriac, and Hebrew, attesting to the popularity of these legendary exploits. As far as I know, most scholars believe that the Jerusalem visit described in Josephus and other stories about Alexander existed in regional variants even in the first century. It’s not unlikely that synagogue might commission a mosaic depicting some legendary episode of Alexander’s life.

  9. brucem58 says:

    To suggest that the mosaic represents Alexander the Great is challenging known history. The character in the mosaic suggested to be Alexander is incorrect for two reasons, namely the bearded Royal character and the war elephants. Alexander shaved off his beard just prior to his showdown with the Persian emperor for the control of Asia, and remained beardless thereafter. His motive was to associate himself with the beardless demigod Heracles, also asking his soldiers to do likewise.
    The war elephants were unknown to Alexander until the Persian war. One of his generals, Seleucis, brought back many war elephants from India and used them extensively as part of his battle strategies. Alexander, therefore was well before the event depicted in the mosaic and is always depicted as beardless.
    Therefore, it would appear that Britt is more correct than Magness

  10. David says:

    “The two-horned ram that you saw stands for the kings of Meʹdi·a and Persia. The hairy male goat stands for the king of Greece; and the great horn that was between its eyes stands for the first king. As for the horn that was broken, so that four stood up instead of it, there are four kingdoms from his nation that will stand up, but not with his power,” Daniel 8:20.
    Because the Jews, since the time of Daniel, already knew their history in advance they didn’t appose the presence of the new Grecian world power under Alexander and presented his arrival with opened gates.

  11. Margret Dueterin says:

    Seriously, it’s a mosaic, laid for posterity presumably.

    Why in heck would Jews commerize the creeps of the earth ie history?

    On.y thing pertine t is the H on the clothing, that tells all

  12. Bob says:

    Britt’s approach is untenable. It is simply impossible that the mosaic’s iconography represent an event that is not recorded in the vast religious literature and traditions from that era. Furthermore it is absurd to suggest that Antiochus, an arch-villain, would be portrayed sympathetically.

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