Hammath Tiberias Synagogue Mosaic Imagery

Hammath Tiberias_fullPhoto credit: Manar Al-Athar, Elias Khamis: Hammath Tiberias – synagogue

The Hammath Tiberias synagogue is located on the outskirts of Tiberias, Israel. The second synagogue site, where the pictured mosaics were found, dates to the 4th century CE. The ancient synagogue offers a look into Jewish life in antiquity. Synagogues like Hammath Tiberias demonstrate the incorporation of Jewish and non-Jewish elements, offering a looking into the dynamic nature of Jewish social, cultural, religious life.

Temple.pngPhoto credit: Manar Al-Athar, Judith Mckenzie: Hammath Tiberias – synagogue

The synagogue is notable for its mosaic imagery of the zodiac, a non-Jewish decorative element. Synagogue imagery reflects creative syntheses in Jewish communities. The image directly above the zodiac, however, depicts imagery that relates directly to physical objects that were once present and used in the synagogue. This frequent cluster of symbols appeared in synagogue decoration, on mosaic pavements, and in stone reliefs from the 4th-6th centuries. The pattern at Hammath Tiberias features a Torah shrine flanked by pairs of menorot, shofar (ram’s horn), Etrog (citron-fruit), and lulav (palm branch), and incense shovels. In Hammath Tiberias, the composition is set within a field of small flowers. The image below is a reconstruction of the synagogue’s second phase. The image shows that the Torah shrine and its flanking menorot would likely have been physically present in addition to the mosaic’s depiction.

reconstructionPhoto credit: Israel Exploration Society: Reconstruction of Synagogue IIa.

Scholars have posed several theories about the image of the cluster of Jewish symbols present on the mosaic at Hammath Tiberias, which frequently accompanied zodiac mosaics. There is general agreement that the symbols refer to the Second Temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed in 70CE. The appearance of the central Torah shrine has been interpreted as a mechanism for the memory of the Temple, possibly reflecting the synagogue’s religious significance in continuing the memory of the Temple.

In addition to mosaic imagery, literary sources and inscriptions refer to the synagogue as a ‘holy place’ and the congregation as a ‘holy congregation’. The inscription below designates the site as a ‘holy place’ in both Greek (upper) and Aramaic (lower). Such references have lead scholars to assume that synagogues had become widely viewed as holy places, a status which had been articulated by Byzantine Imperial legislation in the 4th century.

Holy place.pngPhoto credit: Manar al-Athar: Elias Khamis: Hammath Tiberias – synagogue

Further reading:

Levine, Lee I., Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity: Historical Contexts of Jewish Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012.

Levine, Lee I. The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.

Cover image credit: Manar Al-Athar: Elias Khamis: Hammath Tiberias – synagogue