Ancient synagogue in Golan strengthen claims of Jewish presence

Archaeologists have uncovered pieces of a rare Roman period synagogue in northern Israel, lending evidence to the ancient Jewish presence in the Holy Land at a time it was previously believed Jewish life ceased to exist there, the University of Haifa said.

The colorful mosaics in a third-century synagogue depict animals and birds and were discovered during an excavation at the town of Majdulia in the Golan Heights.

Until recently, scholars believed that Jewish presence in the Golan had ceased to exist after the destruction of the Gamla fortress by the Romans in 67 AD. Discoveries such as this show otherwise and are forcing scholars to rethink the historic makeup of the region.

Mechael Osband from Haifa University’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology explained that very little information from that period exists. The synagogue dates back to the third century AD.

“In the third century CE, regarding synagogues’ structure, we see an interesting combination between the Second Temple tradition – for example, in the shape of the seating arrangement and in the unadorned style, and new elements that over time became commonly found in prayer halls, such as colorful mosaic featuring animals,” he said.

The mosaics were found in poor condition and archaeologists cannot identify exactly which animals adorn the mosaics.

During this time, Osband said synagogues generally transitioned from a place of study to houses of prayer.

“We know that synagogues at the end of the Second Temple period served mainly as a place of Torah study,” he said. “At the end of the Roman period, and especially in the Byzantine period, the synagogue started served as a prayer hall, a kind of ‘little temple.’ They therefore became much more luxurious and it is not uncommon that they also included fancy mosaics.”
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