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Mysteries at Tell Huqoq

Since 2011 an excavation is conducted at Tell Huqoq, a hilltop about 7 km west of the Sea of Galilee, by Professor Jodi Magness from University of Northern Carolina at Chapel hill, in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority. Surveys conducted at the site before the excavations indicated possible traces of an ancient synagogue at the site. The excavations proved the existence of such a synagogue, between the 4th and the 6th centuries CE. Over a hundred of ancient synagogue are known from that period, but only occasionally is a synagogue found with a mosaic floor.

The first mosaic uncovered in Huqoq synagogue, published in 2012, depicted an unprecedented topic in synagogue mosaics – scenes from the life of Samson. Two pairs of foxes whose tails are tied to a torch as well as a man carrying the city gates of Gaza (Judges 15:3) leaves no doubt who is the figure.

Mosaic showing Samson carrying the gate of Gaza, from the Huqoq

Photo by Jim Haberman, reproduced by permision of Jodi Magness

Two medallions depicting women heads, with the inscription next to them “And blessed.. who adhere to all commandments.. Shalom” is apparently commemorating a donation to the synagogue by women members of the community.

 Photo by Jim Haberman. (C) Jodi Magness

Photo by Jim Haberman. Reproduced by permission of Jodi Magness

In the last season (2015) another section of the mosaic of the synagogue was uncovered, depicting another new topic, yet this time the subject is not clear. Recently it was published by “National Geographic“, who also sponsors some of the dig.

In the upper panel a military force can be seen, facing a group of man wearing white togas. The military force is led by a bearded commander who also wears a laurel wreath, and is holding a bull. Among the soldiers are some elephants. An elder and bearded figure is confronting the commander. He is wearing a white toga and pointing to the sky. Behind him are younger men also dressed in white toages, some are pulling swords out of their seaths.

Unfortunately I am not permitted to publish a photo of the mosaic floor discussed in this article. You have to click on this webpage of National Geographic to review it.

The appearance of elephants led members of the excavations to suggest the mosaic is relating to the battles of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Greeks, who had elephants (I Mac. 6:30; II Mac. 14:14). Professor Magness suggests that the mosaic is depicting the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Elders of Jerusalem. This event probably never happened, but it is mentioned in the Talmud (Sota 69a), and became a popular subject in Jewish literature.

Karen Britt, an art historian at Western Carolina University, and Ra’anan Boustan, a UCLA history of religion specialist, suggest a different interpretation, that the mosaic is depicting the treaty between the Seleucid king Antiochus VII and the Maccabean king John Hyrcanus I, in 132 BCE. In this meeting Hyrcanus paid 300 talents of gold, and in return Antiochus VII provided a bull sacrifice in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem

In my opinion both of these interpretations are problematic. For one both Alexander the great and Antiochus VII were almost never depicted with a beard. Furthermore, the lower panel depicts a battle and, yet both the meeting of Alexander and of Antiochus with the Jews was a positive meeting.

So what is the mosaic presenting?

Ralph Ellis suggests the mosaic is depicting the scene of the priest of Jerusalem rejecting a bull offering from the Romans. This was because the Bull was imperfect and so cannot be sacrificed by Jewish law, yet the Romans were not aware of that and considered that a rebellious act, a misunderstanding that according to the Babylonian Talmud (Gitin V 55b-56a) led eventually to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

The bull indeed seems to has a scar on its cheek. Is this the imperfection that led the priest of Jerusalem to reject him? Perhaps that his why he also appears smiling?

Even if so, again the subject is not in line with the battle scene at the bottom where the Romans

seem to be defeated in battle. In reality it was quite the opposite..

I think we should we revert to the interpretation of the mosaic when it was first found – the break of the Maccabean revolt. The scene in the upper panel is the representative of Antiochus IV presenting in the town of Modi’in the animal that the locals are supposed to sacrifice, thus accepting the replacement of Judaism with Hellenism.

Yet the local Jewish priest, named Matityahu,  stabbed the officer to death (as depicted in the mosaic) and declared on a rebellion for the freedom of Jewish religion (hence his finger pointed up).

Behind him figures pulling swords out of their seaths. It is tempting to identify them as the five sons of Matityhau (Elazar, Judah, Simon, Jonathan, and Johanan) and other figures.

Matityahu’s sons indeed led several successful battles against the forces of Antiochus IV. Accordingly the lower panel is presenting the defeated Seleucid army, which indeed included elephants.

The middle panel presents eight Toga wearing figures with weapons, standing in an arched building, and in the middle a seated elder, holding a document (?). Nine oil lamps are lit on top of the building. It is tempting to relate this to the tradition of lighting the Hannukah candelabra. Is this a presentation of the Maccabean dynasty with Matityahu as its founder?. The seated figure looks similar to the figure facing the general, and the other figures have individual hairstyles, but matching the hair styles of the standing figures of the upper panel.

If this is indeed a presentation of the Maccabean revolt it is the first of time this subject is found in ancient Jewish art (!). Hannukah was apparently barely celebrated after the Temple was destroyed, perhaps in fear of the Romans (who could consider this as a symbol of a rebellion), and accordingly is barely discussed in the Mishna. The Talmud however does show increasing interest in this holiday, perhaps reflecting the gradual degeneration of the Byzantine regime, a process which resulted with the conquest of the Holy Land by the Muslims in 638 CE. This eventually also led to the abandonment of Huoqoq, yet its remains were not looted in the middle ages, and were so were uncovered only in modern times.