Ancient Synagogues Revealed. Ed. Lee Levine. Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1981.

-Mosaic_Floor_of_a_Jewish_Synagogue_in_Greece_-_300_CEThe synagogue remains discovered to date in the Diaspora are much fewer than those found in Roman Palestine, and it is hardly possible to speak of any typological homogeneity amongst them, let alone of any clear-cut resemblance to those in Israel. This can probably be explained by their wide distribution- at Dura-Europos in Syria; Miletus, Priene and Sardis in Asia Minor; Corinth, Delos and Aegina in Greece; Stobi in Macedonia; Ostia in Italy; Elche in Spain; and Naro (Hammam Lif) in Tunisia. If several synagogues were discovered within a more limited geographical area, it would probably be found that they possess common features in plan and ornament, as is the case with the ancient synagogues of Israel. The Diaspora synagogues were part of their own artistic and architectural environments, and any attempt to compare them must take regional factors into account. Such differences, and the individual tendencies of their congregations, led to considerable variation in plan and ornamentation. All the Diaspora synagogues do, however, conform in certain broad essentials—general orientation toward Jerusalem and the use of Jewish motifs such as the menorah, shofar, incense shovel, ethrog and lulab, in mosaics and other decorations. It must be added that numerous isolated remains and objects (mainly inscriptions) from ancient synagogues have been found scattered throughout the Diaspora, but these are generally insufficient to provide a picture of a complete synagogue. Below we shall review the remains of ancient synagogues found at some of the sites mentioned above. Separate chapters are devoted to the synagogues at Dura-Europos (pp. 171-176) and Sardis (pp. 177-183).

Apamea. At Apamea on the Orontes in Syria, remains of a synagogue were found beneath those of a church by a Belgian expedition in 1934. Splendid mosaics and many interesting inscriptions in Greek were found, mentioning inter alia the head of the Council of Elders at Antioch and his family; it is known that these very persons were buried at Beth-She’arim, for they are mentioned in inscriptions discovered in catacomb No. 12. One of the inscriptions dates the mosaic pavement at Apamea to the late fourth century C.E. The plan of the synagogue at Apamea has never been published.

Miletus. At Miletus, also in Asia Minor, a modest structure came to light in the excavations of a German expedition; it was apparently built in the third or fourth century C.E. on a basilical plan. The hall measures 11.6 × 18.5 m., and has a peristyle forecourt with benches to the east. It has been identified as a synagogue on the basis of analogy with synagogues of Roman Palestine. It should be noted, however, that it is incompletely excavated, and no direct evidence has been found inor around the building for any specifically Jewish use.

Priene. At this Hellenistic city, again in Asia Minor, extensive excavations by a German expedition at the end of the nineteenth century revealed the remains of a small synagogue which the excavators regarded as similar to a “house church.” The planners of the building converted a private dwelling on the street of the west gate, sometime in the fourth or fifth century C.E. The small hall, measuring 10 × 14 m., had a niche in the eastern wall, toward Jerusalem, measuring 1.5 × 1.5 m., and apparently used for the Torah shrine. There are benches on the north wall, and there is a small forecourt to the west. The identification of this modest building is quite clear; three reliefs bearing definitely Jewish symbols were found. On all three there is a menorah; one bears, in addition, rolled Torah scrolls, an ethrog and a lulab; on another, the central motif is flanked by peacocks. Within the hall there is a large laver basin, but its use within the hall is obscure. This building indicates the existence of a Jewish community here in the late Roman period, but there is no proof for its existence in the Hellenistic period, when the city was at its zenith.

Delos. On this Aegean island, whose Jewish community is mentioned by Josephus and in inscriptions, a structure discovered at the beginning of this century has been identified as a synagogue built in the first century B.C.E. and continuing through the first and second centuries C.E. The identification, at first somewhat controversial, is now accepted by a majority of scholars.

This structure, like that at Dura-Europos and others, is part of a residential quarter, in the northeastern corner of the island, very close to the sea-shore. The main hall measures 14.4 × 16.9 m. The entrances are on the east, and on the northern part of the western wall are well-formed marble benches, at the center of which is a splendid marble “throne,” recalling the “Seat of Moses” as found at Chorazin and Hammath-Tiberias (see pp. 63-69). South of the hall is a row of smaller rooms; beneath one of them is a cistern in which a group of lamps bearing particularly pagan motifs was found. In front of the entrance on the east is a covered portico. Within the hall, no focal point for the Torah shrine was found. Though the plan of the structure indicates that it was used for assembly, there is no positive evidence that it was actually a synagogue, except for several ex voto inscriptions, the contents and significance of which are debatable. The inscriptions contain dedications to Theos Hypsistos, a form of the Divine Name which is used in the Septuagint version of the Bible, but which occasionally appears in pagan contexts as well. Inscriptions of certain Jewish origin employing this term have been found on an adjacent island. In other inscriptions in this structure, there appears the Greek term proseuche, generally referring to a synagogue or prayer-house in the Hellenistic period. Thus, despite the problems, this structure would appear to be the earliest synagogue yet discovered, dating from the first century B.C.E.

Aegina. The ruins of a synagogue on the island of Aegina were first noted by a German scholar in 1829; the building was studied again in 1901 and 1904, and in 1928 by E.L. Sukenik. It was thoroughly excavated by a German expedition in 1932, and the Greek Department of Antiquities has recently completed the work. The hall of the building, located not far from the harbor, measures 7.6 × 13 m., with an apse (?) on the eastern wall. There was apparently a portico before the hall. The mosaic pavement of the hall is in blue, grey, red, and black, and
includes two inscriptions, within tabulae ansatae, both referring to donors. Remains of an earlier structure were noted beneath the building, which seems to have been in use till the seventh century C.E.

Stobi. At Stobi in Macedonia (Yugoslavia), a long inscription in Greek was found some forty years ago. This inscription, ascribed to the third century C.E., is dedicated to a donor, Claudius Tiberius Polycharmos, who is described as “the Father of the Synagogue at Stobi,” and who donated a considerable sum of money for the repair and expansion of the building. He may have donated his own house for use as the synagogue structure. In excavations on the site in recent years, inscribed fragments of stucco were found, also mentioning Polycharmos and his donation. The large inscription, of 32 lines, is incised on a column in the forecourt of a basilical structure of the fifth century C.E., discovered in 1931. This building was therefore identified as the synagogue, but the identification, accepted in the scientific literature, has been demonstrated as incorrect in the light of more recent work on the site. It appears that the column is in secondary use in the basilica, which was actually a church built over two earlier buildings, probably synagogues. The church is of the late fourth-fifth centuries C.E., while the earlier synagogue, of Polycharmos, is of the third century C.E. and the later one, of the fourth century C.E. The plan of the earlier structures is still not clear and thus it is impossible to identify those parts which are mentioned in the inscription (such as the hagios topos, triklinion, and tetrastoön). The later synagogue, directly beneath the entrance to the basilica, has a mosaic pavement of geometric patterns; the main hall measures 7.9 × 13.3 m. and is oriented to the east; a small platform, possibly a base for a Torah shrine, was found abutting the wall closest to Jerusalem, at the eastern end of the hall. As in many other synagogues, a bench runs along the southern wall. In a room adjacent to the synagogue on the south, a menorah was scratched on a plastered wall—an indication of the identification of this building.

Ostia. Among the most important synagogue discoveries outside Roman Palestine is the synagogue brought to light at Ostia, the port of Rome; it was uncovered and restored in 1961- 1962. This structure was revealed accidentally during preparations for a highway to the international airport on the coast, near the town. The synagogue was founded in the first century C.E., though the principal remains are of the fourth century C.E.

The fourth-century synagogue comprises a complex of rooms measuring 23.5 × 36.6 m. The main hall, measuring 12.5 × 24.9 m., is divided into three sections. It has three entrances, the middle one of which leads to the forepart, slightly lower than the rest of the hall, and paved in
mosaics. From there, stairs lead to a propylaeum comprising four columns, forming the main entrance to the prayer hall, paved in opus sectile. This inner part is enclosed by walls which pass between the propylaeum and the walls of the hall. In the northeastern wall there is an opening, closed by metal bars. The southwestern wall was removed when a large aedicula was installed in the final phase of the building; in the initial phases there were two entrances beside the propylaeum. This aedicula entirely blocked the southern access to the interior of the hall. On the façade of the aedicula, which most probably served as the site of the Torah shrine, two columns bore architraves jutting out of the wall, ending in corbels and ornamented in relief with the menorah motif flanked by a shofar, ethrog and lulab—decidedly Jewish symbols. The location of this aedicula recalls that of the two aediculae flanking the entrances to the synagogue at Sardis (see pp. 177-183), which apparently held Torah shrines. There seem to have been aediculae on the front wall of the hall in the synagogues at Capernaum and Chorazin as well. Adjacent to the curved back wall of the prayer hall was a raised bema. South of the prayer hall, abutting it, was a further space divided into two rooms—one apparently a kitchen with an oven and storage vessels in situ, and the other, larger, with benches along the southern and western walls. These rooms were undoubtedly related to the synagogue, for their northern doorways led toward the prayer hall, and it is assumed that they formed part of a hostel. On the east of the complex were remains of what can be regarded as a sort of narthex or vestibule. In an inscription from the Ostia synagogue mention is made of a donor, one Mindis Faustus, who donated the Torah shrine (kibotos; see also pp. 185-189); this inscription is from the second-third centuries C.E. and, of course, cannot refer to the aedicula, which was built later. The inscription is contemporary with the Dura-Europos synagogue, in which a fixed place for the Torah shrine was found.

Beneath the fourth-century building are the remains of synagogue structures from the first century C.E. on; their plan is still unclear, though the excavators believe it somewhat resembles that of the fourth-century building.

Naro. At Naro (Hammam Lif) in Tunisia, remains of a sixth-century C.E. structure were uncovered at the end of the nineteenth century, but the chance nature of the find, by a resident French army officer, precluded the preparation of a proper plan. The mosaics were removed and sold, part eventually reaching the Brooklyn Museum in New York. The fate of the other remains is unknown. The mosaic pavement depicted floral medallions containing animal and other motifs. One of the dedicatory inscriptions, in Latin, mentions the sancta sinagoga.

Above we have reviewed the remains of several ancient synagogues in the Diaspora, from the Hellenistic to the Byzantine periods. These structures represent only a small percentage of the synagogues which we can assume existed in the numerous Jewish communities of the Diaspora in antiquity. Epigraphic sources, for instance, reveal that there were about a dozen synagogues in ancient Rome. Various archeological remains containing Jewish symbols such as the menorah, together with epigraphic and literary evidence, indicate the existence of some 140 synagogues in the Diaspora, and this figure probably represents only a fraction of the actual total.

1. V. Verhoogen, Apamée de Syrie aux Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire (Bruxelles, 1964); E.L. Sukenik, “The Mosaic Inscriptions in the Synagogue at Apamea on the Orontes,” Hebrew Union College Annual, 23 (1950-1951), 541-551.

2. A.V. Gerkan, “Eine Synagoge in Milet,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft,20 (1921), 177-181.

3. T. Wiegand and M. Schrader, Priene, Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen (Berlin, 1904), p. 480; E.R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period,II (New York, 1953), p. 77.

4. P. Bruneau, Recherches sur les cultes de Délos à l’époque hellénistique el à l’époque impériale (Paris, 1970), pp. 480-493.

5. J. Wiseman and D. Mano-Zissi, “Excavations at Stobi,” American journal of Archeology, 75 (1971), 395-411; 76 (1972), 407-424; 77 (1973), 391-403;Journal of Field Archaeology,1 (1974), 117-148.

6. M.F. Squarciapino, “The Synagogue atOstia,” Archeology,16 (1963), 194-203.

7. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, II, pp. 89-100.