by Hillel Geva
The remains of a small Jewish village were found at the site. Several dwellings were arranged around a broad square, at the center of which stood a public building - the synagogue. The buildings were well constructed and separated by narrow alleys; their walls made of large, trimmed stones, and the entrances of well-dressed ashlars.
Each dwelling consisted of several rooms around an inner courtyard. In them were various installations, such as pits for storing water, cut into the rock to considerable depth, olive presses with stone basins for crushing and heavy stone weights for pressing. The mikva'ot (Jewish ritual baths) in the houses were cut into the rock and plastered, with stairs leading to the bottom. Their presence attests to the resident's attention to Jewish ritual purity regulations. One structure, with several particularly large rooms, probably served as a warehouse for the products of the inhabitants.
A small building with a unique plan stood in the village square. It was a square structure (9.6 m. wide on each side), the façade with the main entrance facing north. This wall was particularly well built of large ashlars with margins and smoothed boss, unlike the other walls, which were constructed of large, trimmed stones like the village houses. The entrance in the center of the façade had a lintel with a rosette in relief, within a triangular frame.
The floor of the synagogue was carefully laid of large, trimmed stones. Around three of the building's inner walls (all except the entrance wall) were high, wide benches constructed of stone. Four pillars made of stone sections and topped with Dorian-style capitals stood in the center. At each side of the entrance, and in the back wall of the building, protruded two pairs of square stone pilasters with capitals. The columns and the pilasters created two rows along the length of the building that supported arches, originally surmounted by a wooden structure that in turn supported the roofing. Fragments of red-painted plaster are evidence that the walls were painted. In the western wall of the building was an entrance to a small, plastered room in which ritual objects of the synagogue were probably kept.
The presence of synagogues in the Second Temple period is known from Jewish sources, as well as from the New Testament. The remains of a few such synagogues have been uncovered, including the well-known one in the fortress of Masada on the Dead Sea and the one of Gamala, on the Golan. During this period, the Temple still stood in Jerusalem and served as the center of Jewish cult. Synagogues existed in Jewish settlements, serving the needs of the community as places for Torah study and prayer. Their existence did not compete with, or challenge, the centrality and importance of the Temple. The synagogue discovered at Kiryat Sefer demonstrates that synagogues were built even in small villages on the fringes of the area inhabited by Jews. The synagogue of Kiryat Sefer was a modest structure, built according to the economic means and the requirements of the village community.
The building has architectural features similar to those of other synagogues of this period, thereby aiding researchers in identifying it as a synagogue. The fact that it is not oriented towards Jerusalem only demonstrates that during this period regulations governing synagogue orientation (prayer facing Jerusalem) had not yet been consolidated. Finds from the houses of the village, such as pottery and coins, show that the village had been founded in the Hellenistic period (3rd-2nd centuries BCE), but the buildings in the village and the synagogue date from the 1st century BCE.
The village was established by Jews who had left the hills of Benjamin and Ephraim (the Samaria region). They developed vineyards and olive groves, sold their products on local markets, and even exported abroad. Export of olive oil and wine brought them economic prosperity, as reflected in several hoards of coins, including many gold coins, which were found in the ruins of the village. Though few in number, the inhabitants were able to construct spacious houses and to fund the building of a synagogue, in which to gather for religious and social functions.
The village of Kiryat Sefer was abandoned during the suppression of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66-70 CE). It was briefly resettled, but was destroyed during the Roman suppression of the Bar-Kokhba Rebellion (132-135 CE).
The remains of the village and the synagogue have been preserved within the area of the modern settlement of Kiryat Sefer. After reconstruction, the site will be opened to the public.
The site was excavated during the late 1990s by Y. Magen on behalf of the Staff Officer for Archeology in Judea and Samaria.
Hillel Geva studied archeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, participated in excavations in the Jewish Quarter and the Citadel in Jerusalem, and is author of the entry "Jerusalem" in the New Encyclopedia of Archeological Excavations in the Holy Land and editor of Ancient Jerusalem Revealed.
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs