BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Resurrecting a Byzantine Synagogue at Um el-Kanatir

Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again

um-el-kanatir

Um el-Kanatir is unique among the 26 ancient Byzantine synagogues identified on the Golan Heights because its stones were still in a pile in situ. This image gives a sense of the difficulties that lay ahead in moving and reconstructing these heavy stones. Photo: Yehoshua Dray.

When everything lies in ruins, what does it take to put it together again? Archaeology is destructive by nature. The excavation process involves systematically removing layers of dirt and debris in order to unearth material remains. The site of Um el-Kanatir, located in the Golan Heights above the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, is different. Partners Chaim Ben David and Yeshu Dray have digitally mapped and then lifted up the heavy stones at the site in order to restore the Byzantine synagogue that was once there. Chaim Ben David describes this complex restoration process—called anastylosis—in “Um el-Kanatir: Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again” in the July/August 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

What is unique about the Byzantine synagogue at Um el-Kanatir, meaning the “Mother of Arches,” is that although the building has completely collapsed, most of its stone blocks lay in situ where they fell. The entire site was mapped with 3D laser scans, which provided precise locations and measurements for every block, and each block was tagged with a radio-frequency identification microchip for tracking.

um-el-kanatir-chip

A radio-frequency identification microchip was inserted into each synagogue stone at Um el-Kanatir. These chips were able to track each stone in relationship to its neighbors. Photo: Yehoshua Dray.

With computer software, the archaeological team was able to create a 3D rendering of the reconstructed synagogue. An industrial-strength bridge crane was then used to lift up and relocate the extremely heavy blocks to their restored position.

um-el-kanatir-wall

High atop the western wall, workers carefully lower the keystone of a round window into place. The keystone features a relief of a lion sticking his tongue out with front paws extended. Photo: Yehoshua Dray.

“It has taken 12 years to reconstruct 50 percent of the original building,” writes Ben David. “Each stone has been placed specifically to fit each of those flanking it. Under the direction of main field archaeologist Ilana Gonen Chaim, we worked the equivalent of approximately 600 days, spending half the time excavating and half reconstructing.”


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The result is breathtaking: The archaeologists have restored the synagogue’s western and eastern walls, its Torah shrine, an octagonal basalt flagstone floor mosaic and columns decorated with the seven-branched menorah.

um-el-kanatir-torah-shrine

Alight in the dark, the newly restored Torah shrine is the pinnacle of the well-preserved Byzantine synagogue at Um el-Kanatir. Photo: Yehoshua Dray.

To learn step by step how the archaeologists used 21st-century methods and technology to restore the Byzantine synagogue at Um el-Kanatir, read the full article “Um el-Kanatir: Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again” by Chaim Ben David in the July/August 2016 issue of BAR.

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BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Um el-Kanatir: Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again” by Chaim Ben David in the July/August 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Ancient Synagogues in Israel and the Diaspora
Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols: Zodiac mosaics in ancient synagogues
A Samson Mosaic from Huqoq
Magnificent Menorah Mosaic Found in Galilee
Anastylosis at Machaerus, Where John the Baptist was Beheaded


 

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4 Responses

  1. Tom says:

    Unclear from the article is whether or not they plan on reconstructing the other 50% over the next 12 years. Any editor want to comment on that?

  2. Steven says:

    It is well worth the visit. There is a nice Spring nearby. In the summer the Golan can be extremely hot, as is most of Israel, but in other seasons, just great.

  3. anna says:

    I would love to see this.

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4 Responses

  1. Tom says:

    Unclear from the article is whether or not they plan on reconstructing the other 50% over the next 12 years. Any editor want to comment on that?

  2. Steven says:

    It is well worth the visit. There is a nice Spring nearby. In the summer the Golan can be extremely hot, as is most of Israel, but in other seasons, just great.

  3. anna says:

    I would love to see this.

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