Breathtaking mosaics from a synagogue in Northern Israel are now being shared with the world for the first time, presenting visions of how fifth-century artists portrayed biblical events such as the story of Jonah, the Tower of Babel and the parting of the Red Sea.
The mosaics were discovered at the fifth-century synagogue in Huqoq by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Fox News reported. Although researchers have shown parts of the mosaics in the past, they are just now releasing the full images.
“This is by far the most extensive series of biblical stories ever found decorating the mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue,” professor Jodi Magness said in a press release from the University of North Carolina.
The collection of images includes subjects not usually found.
More ancient mosaic discoveries at Huqoq. I’m especially fond of the fishes swallowing Jonah! https://t.co/EvCjeBg68G
— Sonia King (@SoniaMosaic) November 15, 2018
“Although the story of Jonah was popular in early Christian art, this is the first time it has been found decorating an ancient synagogue,” Magness added.
“The Huqoq version is unusual in showing three large fish swallowing Jonah, and representing the storm winds (in the upper left corner) as Harpy-Sirens — half-female, half-bird creatures from Greek mythology.”
Magness discussed the unique art in a UNC podcast.
” … the content of our scenes is either unique, in some cases — unique, that means unparalleled — or very rare,” Magness said. “And so, for example, we have two scenes of Sampson. One is of Sampson and the foxes, and the other is of Sampson carrying the gate of Gaza, which have no other parallels in Israel. No other ancient synagogues in Israel has those scenes of Sampson, and there’s only one other ancient synagogue in Israel that has any scene of Sampson at all. Those are very important.”
Not everything fit neatly into an Old Testament framework, she said.
A war-elephant depicted on a C5thAD #mosaic from Huqoq, a #Roman-Jewish village in ancient Galilea. One of the few glimpses into the appearance of the war elephants of antiquity. pic.twitter.com/KkP5VNp9Su
— Dr Jo Ball (@DrJEBall) October 20, 2018
“We have a scene which shows the very first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue,” Magness said. “Until now, all scenes that were discovered decorating ancient synagogues were taken from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. This is not a biblical story. It has battle elephants in it. So, there are no battle elephants in stories in the Old Testament. So, it’s clearly not connected with the Hebrew Bible. It might be a story that is connected with Alexander the Great.”
The mosaic showing the parting of the Red Sea “is really amazing, because it shows Pharaoh’s soldiers, and chariots and horses drowning in the sea. And Pharaoh’s soldiers are being swallowed by large fish. And this is unparalleled, also. So, the content of the scenes is unusual,” she said.
The detail in the mosaics provides a window into the world from which they came.
“For instance, archaeologists are able to pick out nearly a dozen different species of fish, as well as an octopus and a dolphin, in the panel featuring Jonah,” Kristin Romey wrote for National Geographic.
“The scene depicting the construction of the Tower of Babel features a variety of workers with different skin colors, clothing, and hairstyles, reflecting the differences God created among them after they attempted to build a tower to heaven. In addition, the depictions of quarrying, woodworking, and lifting stones with a complicated pulley contraption provide unique insight into ancient Roman construction techniques,” she wrote.
Magness said the mosaics shed new light on Jewish cultures of the period.
“There’s this idea that Jewish art never depicted figures, but we have plenty of synagogues from this period with figural images such as animals and people,” she said.
The finds came as a surprise, Magness said, because the location was not expected to be so rich in art.
“I have no explanation” for so much rich art in a small place, she said. “It definitely wasn’t on anyone’s radar before we started excavating there.”
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