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Archaeology in Israel: Beit Alpha

The ancient synagogue of Beit Alpha is located in the Beit She'an Valley, in the north-east of the country. The nearby ruins of Khirbet Beit Ilfa preserve the ancient name.

The mosaic floor of the synagogue was discovered in 1929, when members of Kibbutz Beit Alpha dug irrigation channels for their fields. Excavations were carried out the same year, exposing mosaics preserved intact for almost 1,500 years. Later excavations, in the early 1960s, exposed remains of some houses, indicating that the synagogue had stood in a Jewish village of the Byzantine period (5th-6th centuries).

The synagogue is oriented southwards, toward Jerusalem. It measures 20 x 14 m. and consists of a courtyard (atrium), a vestibule (narthex) and a prayer hall. The walls are of undressed stone, with plastered inner and outer faces.

The courtyard is reached from the street, via an opening in its western wall. It measures 10 x 7 m. and is paved with mosaics in geometric designs.

The 2.5 m.-wide vestibule has two doors in its northern wall facing the courtyard and three doorways in its southern wall providing access to the prayer hall. Its mosaic floor is also in geometric patterns.

The prayer hall measures 10 x 8 m. and is divided by two rows of stone-built pillars into a central nave and two side aisles. The pillars probably supported the arches and the gabled roof of the synagogue. Scholars assume that there was a second storey above the two aisles and the vestibule, serving as a women's gallery. Benches were built along the long walls and along the southern wall of the prayer hall. A door in the western wall led into a side room.

An apse, a rounded raised recess 2.4 m. deep, was built into the southern wall of the synagogue and served as a bema on which the Torah Ark stood, with three steps leading up to it. At a later time, another bema in the shape of a bench was added between the two southern pillars on the eastern side of the prayer hall. A one meter-deep depression lined with stones below the floor of the bema probably served as the synagogue's treasury. When opened during the excavations it contained thirty-six Byzantine bronze coins.

The mosaic floor of the prayer hall

The entire prayer hall is paved in mosaic. The floor of the western aisle is decorated with squares in geometric patterns; the eastern aisle is entirely paved in undecorated white mosaic.

Two dedicatory inscriptions, one in Aramaic and one in Greek, are situated just inside the main entrance to the prayer hall, flanked by a lion and a bull facing each other. The Aramaic inscription states that the mosaic floor was laid during the reign of Emperor Justin (probably Justin I, beginning of the 6th century) and that the cost was covered by donations from members of the community. The Greek inscription reads: May the craftsmen who carried out this work, Marianos and his son Hanina, be held in remembrance.

The colorful mosaic floor of the nave is divided into three distinct panels, all enclosed by a decorated band with a variety of motifs: geometric patterns, fruit, birds and animals. The panels depict, from north to south:

The binding of Isaac

As described in Genesis 22:1-19. On the right is an altar with flames rising from it. Abraham stands next to it, one hand holding his son Isaac and the other a long knife. The names of Abraham and Isaac are inscribed above the figures. A hand emerges from a cloud above Abraham and Isaac, symbolizing the angel of God. Nearby are the Hebrew words meaning "lay not your hand [upon the lad]". The ram and the two servants with the donkey are depicted behind Abraham.

The Zodiac

Appears in the central panel. These astrological signs, though condemned by the prophets, were widely used as decorative elements in both churches and synagogues of the Byzantine period. The twelve signs are arranged in a circle and accompanied by their Hebrew names. In the center of the zodiac, the sun god Helios is represented seated in a chariot drawn by four horses. The four seasons appear in the corners of the panel in the form of busts of winged women wearing jewels; they are inscribed with the Hebrew months initiating each season: Nisan (spring), Tamuz (summer), Tishri (autumn) and Tevet (winter).

The Torah Ark

Is depicted in the rear panel in front of the apse, with a gabled roof and behind a curtain. On either side of the ark is a lit menorah (candelabrum), and traditional Jewish ritual objects: shofar (ram's horn), lulav (palm branch), ethrog (citron) and incense shovel. The ark is protected on both sides by heraldic lions.

The splendid mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue of Beit Alpha is one of the finest uncovered in Israel. It is unique in both motifs and workmanship. The synagogue itself was small and simply built, but its mosaics represent a folk art that is striking, very colorful and rich in motifs. The synagogue was in use during the Byzantine and the Early Islamic periods (7th-8th centuries).

The remains of the synagogue and its mosaic floors have been preserved in a new, covered structure which is open to visitors.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry. Photos courtesy of Jack Hazut