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.


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  • ralph 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?

  • 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.

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