Explore This Mysterious Mosaic—It May Portray Alexander the Great

A decorated floor uncovered in the buried ruins of an ancient synagogue in Israel may depict a legendary meeting with the famous conqueror.

After several years of digging and study, archaeologists are revealing an extraordinary—and enigmatic—mosaic discovered among the ruins of a Roman-era synagogue at a site in Israel known as Huqoq. Nothing like it has come to light in any other building yet known from the ancient world, experts say.

Dated to the fifth century A.D., the mosaic depicts a meeting between two high-ranking male figures, one of whom appears to be a great general leading his troops. A major challenge to interpreting the scene is a total lack of identifying inscriptions.

“It’s very frequent in late antique and early Byzantine art to have figures in mosaics and other media that are labeled,” says Karen Britt, an art historian at Western Carolina University and the excavation’s mosaic expert. “The fact that these are not labeled makes it confounding for the modern viewer.”

The scene includes elephants outfitted for battle—a detail that immediately suggests the story of the Maccabees, Judean leaders who mounted a revolt against the Seleucid Empire in the mid-second century B.C. The Seleucids, who were descendants of one of Alexander the Great’s generals, are famed for including elephants in their armies.

But excavation director Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has a different interpretation. She believes the leader of the army is none other than Alexander the Great himself. His meeting with the high priest of Jerusalem never happened, but it was a piece of historical fiction that would have been very familiar to the residents of ancient Huqoq. (Learn more about the excavation at Huqoq here and here.)

“After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., when his fame spread and his importance became clear because of the way that he changed the face of the Near East, the Jews—like other ancient people—sought to associate themselves with him and his greatness,” Magness explains. “That’s why stories like this legend began to circulate.”

Magness believes the mosaic should be read from bottom to top. In her view, the lowest tier, or register, depicts one of the many battles that Alexander the Great fought as he expanded his empire into the eastern Mediterranean.

The middle register shows Jerusalem’s high priest—the older, bearded man in the center—accompanied by nobles or other priests. All are at the city’s gates, presumably as Alexander approaches.

The importance of those men dressed in white is clearly shown by the symbol that looks like an H, the Greek letter eta. Experts don’t know what that stands for, but it often appears on garments as a sign of high status in the art of this period.

In the top register the high priest and his companions meet Alexander and his troops. Alexander has all of the attributes of a Greek king and military commander, such as a purple cloak and a ribbon around his head, called a diadem. The latter insignia was first taken up by Alexander and then worn by all his successors.

As expected for a leader on the march, this figure is accompanied by soldiers as well as battle elephants, which are also associated with Alexander and his successors.

For Magness, the fact that the figures in this mosaic aren’t identified by inscriptions is a key piece of evidence in favor of Alexander. “There was only one Greek king in antiquity who was so great that he didn’t need a label,” she says.

In her interpretation, the mosaic would have delivered a message of affirmation. “The whole point of the Alexander legend is to show that even Alexander the Great, the greatest of the Greek kings, acknowledged the greatness of the god of Israel,” says Magness, whose research is supported in part by the National Geographic Society. “He’s so awed by the appearance of the high priest that he bows down before him and brings a sacrifice to offer at the temple. If even Alexander the Great himself acknowledged the greatness of the god of Israel, then surely the god of Israel must be great.”

Three-Part History Lesson?

Britt, the art historian, agrees with Magness that the mosaic tells a story that would have held great meaning for ancient synagogue-goers. But she has come up with a different theory about what that story might be—a situation that’s not unusual as members of a research project consider the evidence from different points of view.

Britt and Ra’anan Boustan, a UCLA history of religion specialist who’s also a member of the excavation team, have spent the past two years consulting ancient literature, considering scenes of similar figures in ancient art, and visiting the ruins of synagogues around the Sea of Galilee.

They interpret the mosaic as the depiction of a Seleucid attack on Jerusalem led by King Antiochus VII (pronounced an-TIE-oh-cuss) in 132 B.C.

Like Magness, Britt and Boustan read the mosaic from bottom to top. But in their interpretation, the lowest register depicts a battle in which Seleucid soldiers as well as an elephant and a bull have been killed by spears. The fighting took place outside Jerusalem proper, and the city’s Judean defenders hurled the spears at the invading army from the top of the city walls.

The middle register shows what was going on inside the city during that battle. Judean youths stand with their hands on their swords, ready to take on any invaders who might breach the city walls. In this interpretation, the Judean leader is a high priest named John Hyrcanus I (pronounced HER-cuh-ness).

In the top register, the two leaders—John Hyrcanus I on the left, and Antiochus VII on the right—conclude negotiations for a truce in the company of their respective troops.

The Seleucid leader wears the expected cloak and diadem of Greek royalty, but the breastplate is anachronistically Roman—the only kind of armor the fifth-century mosaic artists would have been familiar with.

The day of the truce is a Jewish feast day, so Antiochus—a pious man—is giving the Judeans a bull to be sacrificed in their temple. In exchange, John Hyrcanus offers up a coin symbolizing the tribute that the Judeans have to hand over.

“In many respects the Seleucid dynasty was a big military machine that collected tribute,” Britt says. “They went to battle, conquered territory, and demanded payment.”

Another important clue for Britt is the fact that the Judean leader is pointing skyward. “He’s signaling to the viewer that the truce being concluded is sanctioned by God,” she explains.

As a three-part history lesson, the scenes would have delivered an affirming message of resilience to the Jews who lived at Huqoq under the boot of the Roman Empire. Invasions, like that of the Romans, were nothing new in this part of the world.

“The Jews were frequently conquered by other people,” Britt says. “The message here is that not only could they hold their own in battle, but they could also reach an honorable and mutually agreeable treaty with their overseers.”

Of course, there’s no knowing exactly what the mosaic makers had in mind, and there’s no explanation that fits all the details of the three scenes in this panel.

“I think you could make the case for a number of different interpretations,” says Magness. With the mosaic now revealed, and the likely possibilities outlined, she expects the debates to begin.

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