GALILEE, Israel (WNCN) — Buried in the earth for centuries and revealed slowly and methodically are the remains of a synagogue at Huqoq — an ancient Jewish village in Israel’s lower Galilee.

“I feel both lucky and very privileged because you know, my team and I are looking at mosaics and other things actually that have not been known of or visible to anybody, for hundreds and hundreds of years,” said Jodi Magness, UNC Kenan Distinguished Professor of religious studies.

“I started excavations there with the hopes of clarifying the nature of the fate of Jewish settlement in this part of Galilee against the background of the rise and spread of Christianity,” she added.

Magness said the journey also began with the hopes of excavating a kind of a synagogue building called the Galilean Type Synagogue.

That, she said, is “basically a very large basilica, kind of a rectangular building with columns inside to support the ceiling. That is best represented by the synagogue at Capernaum, which is just a couple of miles away from us.”

Magness and her team have discovered a well-preserved mosaic panel that decorates the floor just inside the main entrance. Included are what’s believed to be the names of artists or donors.

“It is actually not unusual to have donor inscriptions at the entrance to ancient synagogues when you have mosaic floors. So, I like to say that some things in Judaism haven’t changed in the last 1,600 years, because if you go into a synagogue today and I’m sure churches as well, for example, the first thing that you see is the list of the donors,” Magness said.

But that’s only part of what they’ve unveiled.

“So, this was something of an exceptional find and then even more exceptional was that the mosaics are divided into panels which depict biblical stories, for the most part, and are pretty well preserved. We have a vast array of biblical stories that are portrayed, including stories about Samson, the parting of the Red Sea, Noah’s Ark, the building of the Tower of Babel, Jonah and the fish,” said Magness.

Among the most recent findings are the mosaics of a Philistine horseman and a dead Philistine soldier.

Also depicted among the panels:

  • A Hebrew inscription surrounded by human figures, animals and mythological creatures including putti, or cupids.  
  • The first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue — perhaps the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.  
  • A panel depicting two of the spies sent by Moses to explore Canaan carrying a pole with a cluster of grapes, labeled “a pole between two” from Numbers 13:23. 
  • Another panel showing a man leading an animal on a rope accompanied by the inscription “a small child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).  
  • Figures of animals identified by an Aramaic inscription as the four beasts representing four kingdoms in the book of Daniel, chapter 7.  
  • A large panel in the northwest aisle depicting Elim, the spot where the Israelites camped by 12 springs and 70 date palms after departing Egypt and wandering in the wilderness without water referenced in Exodus 15:27.  
  • A portrayal of Noah’s Ark.  
  • The parting of the Red Sea.  
  • A Helios-zodiac cycle.  
  • Jonah being swallowed by three successive fish.  
  • The building of the Tower of Babel.  

Magness agrees you don’t have to be religious or a student of archeology to understand the connection between then and now.

“It’s something that all of us can relate to today because we’re familiar with these stories. And then the thing is that long ago, people were reading these same stories and understanding them and decorating their congregational hall of worship in this way. So, it really is an extraordinary experience,” said Magness.

The excavation has been underway for eleven years, with a two-year break due to COVID-19.

As the team wraps up its final work, the excavated area will be turned over to the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Jewish National Fund, which plan to develop the site as a tourist attraction.