Man-eating fish, Tower of Babel revealed on ancient mosaic

Archaeologists discover even more remarkable biblical scenes on the floor of a 1,600-year-old synagogue in Israel.

More stunning scenes have been uncovered at the site of a fifth-century synagogue in Israel, where archaeologists have been excavating an ornate mosaic floor since 2012.

The discoveries at Huqoq, a site three miles west of the Sea of Galilee, are especially striking due to the unusual subject matter depicted on the floor of the synagogue, says excavation director Jodi Magness of UNC Chapel Hill.

Along with images from biblical stories such as Noah’s Ark, Moses’ spies, and the parting of the Red Sea—which are rare or even unattested in other synagogues of the period—the mosaic depicts non-biblical details including cupids, classical theater masks, and an enigmatic scene of two powerful men accompanied by soldiers and battle elephants—the first non-Biblical scene ever found in a synagogue and one that Magness believes may depict Alexander the Great.

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Researchers have examined a multitude of clues to discover the meaning of this complex mosaic. Explore a selection of them here.

Aftermath of Battle This section shows figures from an army that has been defeated in battle. Here a dead soldier, dressed in Greek armor, has been killed by a spear.

Felled Giant A battle elephant from the defeated army has died in the conflict along with the soldier on its back.

Casualty in Question Another spear has killed this bull. The significance of this animal is one of the mosaic’s many mysteries.

Ready Defenders A group of youths stand with their hands on the hilts of their swords, ready to fight if necessary.

Status Symbol The H on the men’s clothing is the Greek letter eta. Such symbols denote status, as does the lavish decoration of their garments.

Besieged City? The stone arcade likely symbolizes a city or a city’s gates.

Going Eye to Eye The older man seated on a throne in the center is a high priest and the leader of the group of youths. He’s the focal point here, as the only figure in the arcade who makes eye contact with the viewer.

Shining Lights Lighted oil lamps sit above the arcade. This type of lamp is often found in archaeological excavations in this region.

Marred Masterpiece A repaired patch shows that this mosaic was in use for some time and then was damaged. The fix isn’t nearly as fine as the original stonework.

Peace Accord In this register, the Judean high priest meets the commander of an army. The same armed youths who appear in the arcade are now sheathing their swords. The encounter is peaceful, so there’s no need to fight.

Divine Sanction The high priest points skyward to signal divine approval of his encounter with the military leader.

A Great General The commander wears a diadem, a ribbon of leather around his head. Alexander the Great first wore that as a symbol of kingship, and his successors continued to do so. This figure could be any one of those men.

The Color Purple The commander wears a purple cloak, another sign of royalty.

Anachronistic Armor The commander’s breastplate is Roman, the only kind of armor known to the fifth-century mosaic artists.

Innumerable Army The ranks of the army appear here. They continue off the edge of the mosaic, an indication that the army was very large.

Not-So-Secret Weapon Elephants outfitted for battle are part of the invading army. They make some modern observers think of the Maccabees’ revolt against the Seleucids, who were famous for using battle elephants.

Paying Homage The commander acknowledges the god of Israel by offering a bull for sacrifice.

Diplomatic Gestures The high priest reciprocates with a gesture that acknowledges the commander’s offering.

Brian T. Jacobs, NG Staff. Photo: Mark Thiessen. Sources: Jodi Magness, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Karen Britt, Western Carolina University

The most recent scenes unveiled by the archaeologists include Jonah swallowed by a fish, and the construction of the Tower of Babel.

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A detail of the 1,600-year-old synagogue mosaic featuring, from left, the 12 signs of the zodiac, Jonah swallowed by a fish, and the building of the Tower of Babel.

The 1,600-year-old scenes in the Huqoq mosaic are remarkably detailed. For instance, archaeologists are able to pick out nearly a dozen different species of fish, as well as an octopus and a dolphin, in the panel featuring Jonah. The scene depicting the construction of the Tower of Babel features a variety of workers with different skin colors, clothing, and hair styles, reflecting the differences God created among them after they attempted to build a tower to heaven. In addition, the depictions of quarrying, woodworking, and lifting stones with a complicated pulley contraption provide unique insight into ancient Roman construction techniques.

The “unparalleled” finds at Huqoq, which have been excavated with support from the National Geographic Society, contradict the idea that Jewish settlements in Galilee suffered as the influence of Christianity grew in the region, says Magness. Not only is the artwork in the synagogue of exceptional quality, but it also highlights a rich visual culture at a time when Jewish art is believed to have shunned images.

“There’s this idea that Jewish art never depicted figures,” says Magness, “but we have plenty of synagogues from this period with figural images such as animals and people.”

What’s particularly surprising is that the monumental, elaborately decorated synagogue appears to have been the religious center of a small, albeit wealthy Jewish village. “I have no explanation” for such a grand building in a small settlement, says Magness. “It definitely wasn’t on anyone’s radar before we started excavating there.”

Excavations at Huqoq will continue in 2019.