Heritage Conservation

Reconstruction of the Ancient Synagogues in Israel

Ancient Synagogues:
Local and Global Historical Significance

Israel’s historical and archaeological sites are treasures that are hundreds if not thousands of years old and are the foundation of our culture. We consider these heritage sites supremely important assets. Any decision about a change to these sites impacts generations to come because these are where Israelis and their guests from abroad come to learn the history and culture of the land.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority strictly protects the archaeological heritage sites in its national parks and nature reserves in keeping with professional ethics and international conventions. It also works to preserve the “arena of the story” – the landscapes around these heritage sites – as well as the connection between the sites and their surroundings. The national parks and nature reserves open their gates for surveys and research by professional archaeologists, who excavate and uncover fascinating finds and ancient synagogues. The INPA’s division of archaeology and heritage supervises these ancient sites, works to protect the finds and makes sure they are properly displayed.

Ancient synagogues are a window onto the past, allowing us to connect more deeply to our roots and understand the history, tradition and culture of Jewish communities of the distant past. There are hundreds of ancient synagogues throughout Israel. Some are in precarious condition and some are in ruin. It is important to reconstruct them and preserve them for future generations.

Help us preserve our treasures of the past for ourselves and for future generations

The En Gedi Synagogue

In the early 1970s a well-preserved synagogue was discovered in the area of the ancient village of En Gedi. This small structure knew a number of periods. The first, in the third century CE, included a mosaic floor with a black and white geometric pattern. At the end of that century the doorway in the northern wall was blocked and replaced with a niche for the Holy Ark, which faces Jerusalem. The colorful and well-preserved mosaic from that period includes geometric designs, images of birds and a candelabrum. Four inscriptions were uncovered in the exedra in front of the main hall: one is a list of generations from Adam to Japheth; the second is a list of the signs of the zodiac and the months of the year; the third warns people not to reveal the secret of their community; and the fourth is a dedicatory inscription. Many finds were uncovered in the excavation, mainly around the Holy Ark. Among them was a hoard of 5,000 coins found near the ark. A bronze goblet with a lid was also found, as well as gold threads and gold leaf that may have come from a decorated cloth curtain on the wall niche. A small seven-branched candelabrum made of silver and a bronze candelabrum were also found.

The Synagogue at Caesarea

North of the Muslim-Crusader city of Caesarea, in the area of the Roman city within Caesarea National Park, remains were discovered of the important synagogue of ancient Caesarea. The synagogue had a number of phases. The earliest was small and square, and dated to the time of Herod. This building might be the kenista d’mardata (the “synagogue of the revolt”) mentioned in the Talmud. It is also possible that it is the synagogue where the dispute broke out between the Jews and the pagans in Caesarea that led to the outbreak of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans. In the third century a new synagogue was built here, in whose ruins archaeologists found a hoard of 3,700 coins. It is believed that this synagogue was destroyed in the mid-fourth century. The last synagogue was built here in 459 CE. Mosaics were found in its main hall, together with marble columns and Corinthian capitals. Some of the inscriptions display a carved seven-branched candelabrum. The findings indicate that the synagogue continued in existence until the eighth century.

The Hamat Tiberias Synagogue

This synagogue is situated in Hamat Tiberias National Park. The economic life of the small Jewish town of Hamat, south of Tiberias, relied mainly on its hot springs. Seventeen springs, which emerge from dozens of meters below the surface, were known in antiquity for their healing properties. The synagogue was first discovered in 1920. A stone, seven-branched candelabrum found there is now on display in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The synagogue changed form a number of times over the generations. The remains seen today belong to the “Severus synagogue,” built between 286 and 337 CE, during the time the Sanhedrin was headquartered in Tiberias. The synagogue received its name from one of the Greek inscriptions found at the site. Its most impressive discovery is a mosaic floor with three panels – the earliest mosaic synagogue floor ever found in Israel. The central panel features a spectacular wheel of the zodiac, surrounding the image of Helios the sun god driving his chariot across the sky. In each of the four corners of the central panels are images of women, each symbolizing a season of the year.

The Arbel Synagogue

The Arbel Synagogue is located west of Moshav Arbel, in the center of the extensive Arbel ruins. During the Second Temple period Arbel was an important city inhabited by sages and members of priestly families. The structure apparently had at least two periods. The first is dated to the fourth century CE and the second to the sixth century. The common denominator of both periods was a special doorway cut entirely out of a single block of limestone, including its threshold and whose lintels were carved with flower and medallion designs. The building itself had rows of benches along three of its walls, and columns around three of its sides in a U shape open to the south, toward Jerusalem. During the second period of the building another doorway was opened in the northern wall of the synagogue, and a niche was built for the Torah ark in the southern wall. The synagogue has a magnificent view of the cliffs and caves of Mount Nitai. The outlines of an impressive ancient wall on the mountaintop can also be seen, apparently a remnant of the fortifications built by Josephus Flavius overlooking the “caves around Lake Gennesaret.”

The Bar‘am Synagogue

The ancient synagogue at Kfar Bar‘am, located near the Lebanese border between Kibbutz Sasa and Moshav Dovev, is built of large, beautifully dressed stones. This imposing building attests to the presence of a flourishing Jewish community in the area in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. The façade, which has remained almost intact, is particularly splendid. It has three doorways; the middle one is the largest and most impressive. The doorways, which face Jerusalem, feature fine stone carvings. This is the best preserved synagogue façade in Israel. There is another, smaller synagogue in the village, of which hardly anything survived except the lintel, which is now on display in the Louvre in Paris.

Korazim Synagogue

The synagogue at Korazim and the Jewish village that was excavated around it are a unique and fascinating complex that takes visitors back 1,500 years. Korazim illustrates the daily life of the Jews in the Galilee during the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud. The synagogue, situated in Korazim National Park, was built at the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century and is one of the most beautiful in Israel. It is built of basalt, the most common rock in the area, and decorated with impressive stone carvings of vegetal motifs and geometric patterns as well as lions resembling people crushing grapes in a vat, a vulture and other animals. The façade faces south, toward Jerusalem, like other synagogues of the “mountainous Galilee” type. One special find at Korazim is a “Moses seat,” a carved basalt seat for the leader of the community, incised with a dedicatory inscription in Aramaic. A ritual immersion bath has been reconstructed in the national park near the synagogue, as well as two particularly impressive buildings and an olive oil press.

The Synagogue at Sepphoris

Sepphoris (Tsippori) was the largest and most important city in the Galilee during the Roman and Byzantine periods. It was home to many Jewish sages, the most important of whom was Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, who lived in Sepphoris for 17 years during which he redacted the Mishnah. The synagogue at Sepphoris was built in the fifth or early sixth century CE. The bema for the Holy Ark was built in the western wall of the structure, not in the direction of Jerusalem as was customary in most ancient synagogues at that time. The synagogue’s mosaic floor features rare scenes of great significance for understanding Jewish art. The floor is divided into seven panels, from the entrance to the base of the bema. In the scant remains of the first panel a scene has been securely identified as depicting the three angels visiting Sarah the matriarch. The second panel, which is divided into two parts, apparently portrays the binding of Isaac. The next panel displays the wheel of the zodiac. The fourth panel shows elements of Temple worship, including a basket of first fruits. The next panel shows more elements of Temple worship. In the sixth panel are two candelabras, ram’s horns, the Four Species and tongs for trimming lamp wicks. In the center is the Holy Ark and an incense pan. The seventh and final panel, at the foot of the bema, shows two lions flanking a wreath; one paw of each lion rests on the head of a bull.

The Synagogue at Masada

The synagogue at Masada is one of the oldest synagogues in the world. It was in use when the Second Temple still stood, as well as for a short time after its destruction. The structure had two periods: The first is dated to the time of Herod, when it had two rooms – a small waiting room and a larger room; the roof at this time was supported by two columns. Remains of manure discovered on the floor revealed that at this stage building was used as a stable for horses or mules of the royal caravans or for donkeys that brought water from Masada’s cisterns to the top of the plateau. In the second phase the building was extensively refurbished. The wall separating the two rooms was dismantled, and a room was built in the northwestern corner. Under the floor of this small room two pits were discovered, each of which were found to contain portions of scrolls. Benches were also added. These finds led the excavators to conclude that the pits were a geniza (storage for worn sacred scrolls) and that the building was Masada’s synagogue during the time of the rebels. Glass vessels were found in synagogue’s main room as well as two potsherds with Hebrew inscriptions.

The Bet Alpha Synagogue

The Bet Alpha synagogue was built in the fifth century CE. Architecturally speaking its components are identical to those of churches from the Byzantine period: a courtyard, exedra, rectangular hall, second-story gallery and an additional room. The most beautiful element in the synagogue is the mosaic in the main hall, one of the most important ever discovered in Israel. It is divided into three panels, depicting the Ark of the Covenant, the wheel of the zodiac and the binding of Isaac. The zodiac includes the names of all 12 signs in Hebrew. The images of four women in the corners represent the seasons of the year. The second panel portrays a special scene, the binding of Isaac by Abraham, an event with great significance in Judaism. The mosaic shows two young men and a donkey, and a ram caught by its horns in a bush, with Abraham the patriarch lifting Isaac onto an altar. Above them is a hand, and the God’s words to Abraham: “Do not raise...” [your hand against the boy].
Close Menu