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Archaeologist Unveils Mosaic Art Hidden In Ancient Israel Synagogue

Jim Haberman/Special to WUWF

Local residents can learn about the amazing mosaics discovered during recent excavations in Israel.

The lecture More than Just Mosaics: The Ancient Synagogue at Huqoq in Israel’s Galilee” will be held Sunday, Feb. 17 at Voices of Pensacola Multicultural Center, downtown.

The featured speaker is Dr. Jodi Magness, professor of Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of the Huqoq Excavation Project.

Magness is an archaeologist by training and currently serves as President of the Archaeological Institute of America. She published 10 books, including The Archaeology of The Holy Land. Additionally, she has taken part in numerous excavations in Greece and Israel, specializing in the area of Israel in the Roman Byzantine and the Early Islamic periods.

Credit Jim Haberman
Dr. Jodie Magness working at her Huqoq excavation.

The talk by Dr. Magness will explore the excavation and findings at the ancient synagogue in Huqoq. The first mosaics there were discovered by Magness' team in 2012. The 2018 dig, their eighth at the site, revealed a wealth of the mosaic flooring.

“The site of Huqoq is actually a village near the Sea of Galilee that was occupied for many periods throughout history, including in the time of Jesus, when it was a Jewish village,” said Dr. Magness.

“About, let’s say, 400 years after the time of Jesus, (400 A.D.) the Jewish villagers at Huqoq built a monumental synagogue building decorated with amazing mosaic floors, and that’s what we have been working to bring to light.”

The vibrantly colored mosaics, made with local stones of naturally different hues, portray a number of Biblical stories. Among them are scenes depicting stories about Samson, Noah’s Ark and the parting of the Red Sea where Egyptian soldiers are being swallowed by huge fish, while their chariots are scattered about and destroyed.

Magness says it’s not unique or unparalleled to have an ancient synagogue in Israel decorated with mosaic floors that depict Biblical stories.

“But, what is unparalleled is the sort of richness of the repertoire that we have,” she said, adding that usually archaeologists find a limited number of panels depicting Biblical stories, if any at all.

Credit Jim Haberman/Special to WUWF

“In our case, the entire synagogue was covered with mosaics depicting different Biblical stories and also a couple of panels that are not Biblical stories. So, it’s really the richness and variety of the mosaics and the fact that many of the scenes that we have are not paralleled at other synagogues.”

Dr. Magness is somewhat hesitant to declare a favorite mosaic, but noted that she's particularly fond of the panel that depicts the story of Jonah.

"The reason why I like our story Jonah so much is because like some of our other mosaics actually, there's a lot of humor in it," she said.  In addition to being funny, Magness says there are elements that are unexpected.

Magness says also interesting about this particular mosaic is that it's marks the first time they've found an ancient Jewish art depiction of the story of Jonah.

"It was something that always puzzled scholars, because early Christians used the story of Jonah a lot in their art," she explained. "So what scholars always wondered is well why did Christians like the story of Jonah, but Jews didn't seem to like the story of Jonah.  So, now we know the Jews actually did like the story of Jonah, and we have the first depiction."

All of the mosaics have been removed from the site at Huqoq for conservation and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Excavations are scheduled to continue this summer. Magness hopes that eventually the Israeli government will develop the site for tourism.

Magness says one significant aspect of her findings of these ancient mosaics in Israel is the new insight it gives them about the life and culture of an ancient Jewish village. She points to the fact that the Huqoq synagogue dates to the 5th century, when the once Roman Empire was under Christian rule.

"It shows that these Jewish communities continued to flourish even under Christian rule," she said. "That's important because a lot of scholars today think that Jews suffered under Christian rule, that it was oppressive to Jews. But, apparently, at least in the case of our village, we have a community that prospered, even after they came under Christian rule."

The program featuring Dr. Magnus is presented by the University of West Florida Department of History; Pensacola Jewish Federation; and the UWF College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities.

The presentation is this Sunday, Sunday, Feb. 17, at Voices of Pensacola Multicultural Center, 117 East Government Street.

A reception will be held from 5:30-6:30 p.m.; the lecture will start at 6:30 p.m.

This event is free and open to the public. Tickets are not required, but seating is limited.

Additionally, the UWF Historic Trust is proud to announce a new display in the Voices of Pensacola Multicultural Center. The small exhibit, donated by the Pensacola Jewish Federation, will be on display during the event.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.