On Wednesday, Feb. 8, Dr. Jodi Magness from UNC’s Department of Religious Studies visited Meredith to talk about ancient Hebrew mosaics she and her team discovered while excavating an ancient Synagogue in Huqoq, Israel. Dr. Magness’s research focuses on ancient Jewish communities in modern-day Israel, specifically on how these communities fared under Christian Roman rule. Her research has taken her all over the Middle East and she discovered and began excavating the ancient Synagogue at Huqoq in the early 2010s.
When Dr. Magness’s team began uncovering the Huqoq Synagogue in June 2011, nobody expected to discover colorful mosaics lining the floors. Many other ancient Synagogues in the area, a strip of land in the Sea of Galilee that she jokingly referred to as “Jesus central” in her talk, had standard cement floors and archeologists were expecting the same from the Synagogue serving the small agricultural town of Huqoq. However, her team uncovered something far more interesting than plain floors: largely undisturbed swaths of mosaic flooring that provide a unique look into the life of Jewish Palestinians during the fourth through sixth centuries.
Dr. Magness showcased previously-unpublished images of these mosaics, many of which detail stories from throughout the Hebrew Bible. Over the years, her team has uncovered mosaics depicting Biblical figures such as Samson, Deborah and Jonah. The discovery of a 3.5 meter piece the team dubbed the “Elephant Mosaic” piqued the interest of National Geographic. A Nat-GEO article about the mosaic, which is theorized to depict the legendary meeting of Alexander the Great and the Maccabees, is expected to be published in the coming year. This was the first non-explicitly Biblical mosaic the team discovered.
While many of the mosaics Dr. Magness’s team unearthed have been strictly Biblical, others are composed of an interesting combination of Hebrew and Greco-Roman symbols. One in particular shows two men and two women looking at a medallion with “good things to those who follow the Mitzvah [Jewish commandments]” written on it in Hebrew. The four figures are surrounded by Greco-Roman cupids (mythical figures associated with the Greek deity Dyonysus) and Atlases (Greek mythological figures who held up the sky). In the mosaic depicting the famous story of Jonah and the whale, Greco-Roman Harpy-Sirens are depicted creating the storm that sent Jonah into the belly of the fish. These mosaics present some of the earliest evidence of cultural fusion between indigenous Jewish communities and the Christian Roman Empire.
While some of the mosaics portray Hebrew stories with Greco-Roman imagery, suggesting mutual cooperation and respect, others aren’t as complimentary of the Roman Empire. One mosaic in particular depicts the four beasts the Hebrew Bible explains as representing the four great Empires that will rise before the End of Times. While the first three animals are explicitly named in the Bible, the fourth is ambiguous, and the creators of the Huqoq mosaics chose to represent that final beast as a boar. At the time, the Roman Empire was heavily associated with the boar and renowned as a messy, destructive force.
Beyond religious history the mosaics in Huqoq provide a lot of interesting secular historical information. These mosaics are the oldest depictions of women in the Bible (featuring Deborah and Yael from the Hebrew book of Judges), and the combination of Greco-Roman and Hebrew symbology provides previously unknown insight into how Jewish communities interacted with the Roman Empire during the Classical Antiquity period. The mosaic in what was the main entrance of the Synagogue even hints at friendly regional competition between Jewish communities in Galilee with inlaid Hebrew script that Dr. Magness explained as essentially meaning that “our [the Huqoq] Synagogue is better than your Synagogue.”
Dr. Magness and her team have returned to the Huqoq Synagogue every June since the initial dig in 2011, and this year will be their final archeological visit before the site is turned over to the Hebrew authorities. The site is not currently open to the public, and the mosaics have been recovered with rubble in order to preserve them. While in the future it may become a tourist attraction, for now Dr. Magness’s trip this June will be the last time for anyone to see these beautiful mosaics.
Students interested in joining Dr. Magness’s final dig crew this June for credit via the UNC system can find more information here. For more information on Dr. Magness and her work, visit her website.
By Clary Taylor, Copy Editor