In a significant milestone for the Huqoq Excavation Project, now in its 10th season following pandemic-induced pauses, project director Jodi Magness and assistant director Dennis Mizzi have made captivating discoveries in the southwest part of a synagogue dating back to the late fourth-early fifth century CE. The focus of this season centered on a mosaic panel divided into three horizontal strips, revealing a compelling episode from the book of Judges chapter 4.
The mosaic vividly portrays the victorious Israelite forces led by the prophetess and judge Deborah and military commander Barak overcoming the Canaanite army led by General Sisera. Following the battle, Sisera seeks refuge in the tent of Jael, a Kenite woman, who ultimately slays him with a tent stake through his temple while he sleeps.
Magness emphasized the historical significance of this find, stating, “This is the first depiction of this episode and the first time we’ve seen a depiction of the biblical heroines Deborah and Jael in ancient Jewish art.” Drawing connections to the geographical context, she noted, “Looking at the book of Joshua chapter 19, we can see how the story might have had special resonance for the Jewish community at Huqoq, as it is described as taking place in the same geographical region – the territory of the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon.”
Another noteworthy discovery among the newly unearthed mosaics is a fragmentary Hebrew dedicatory inscription inside a wreath. This inscription is flanked by panels featuring two vases with sprouting vines, forming medallions that enclose depictions of a hare, fox, leopard, and wild boar indulging in clusters of grapes.
The journey of discovery at Huqoq began in 2012, with consecutive seasons revealing intricate mosaics covering the synagogue’s aisles and main hall. Among the findings along the east aisle are panels illustrating stories from the book of Judges, including Samson and the foxes and Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders. Notably, the east aisle also houses the first non-biblical story found decorating an ancient synagogue, depicting the potential meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.
Moving to the north aisle, the mosaic floor features panels with biblical stories, including two spies carrying a pole with a cluster of grapes and a scene accompanied by the inscription “a small child shall lead them” from Isaiah 11:6. The main hall, or nave, boasts mosaics portraying Noah’s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, a Helios-zodiac cycle, Jonah being swallowed by three successive fish, and the building of the Tower of Babel.
In 2019, panels in the north aisle framed figures of animals representing four kingdoms in the book of Daniel. A large panel in the northwest aisle depicted Elim, where the Israelites camped with 12 springs and 70 date palms after departing Egypt. Significantly, the synagogue, dating back to the 14th century CE during the Mamluk period, was rebuilt and expanded, becoming the first Mamluk period synagogue discovered in Israel.
Magness said: “The 14th century CE building appears to be the first Mamluk period synagogue ever discovered in Israel, making it no less important than the earlier building.”
The Huqoq Excavation Project receives support from UNC-Chapel Hill, Austin College, Baylor University, Brigham Young University, and the University of Toronto. The 2022 season received financial support from the National Geographic Society, the Loeb Classical Library Foundation, the Kenan Charitable Trust, and the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. Students and staff from these institutions actively participated in the dig.
Excavations are slated to resume in the summer of 2023, promising more revelations from this captivating archaeological site. — The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill