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THE SYNAGOGUE - (4th cent. A.D.)

Synagogue

The monumental synagogue covering an impressive area was built in the physical centre of the town and was delimited on the four sides by streets.

In striking contrast to the private houses of black basalt stones, the synagogue was built almost entirely with white limestone blocks brought from quarries several miles away, the heaviest reaching almost four tons. The decorative elements (lintels, cornices, capitals etc.) leave the visitors spellbound.

According to Robinson, "for expense, and labour and ornament, the edifice surpasses any thing we have yet seen in Palestine". The synagogue is indeed "one of the most satisfying places to visit in all Palestine" (Albright).

The restoration of the synagogue, initiated by Fr. Orfali in 1922-1925 and continued by Fr. Corbo since 1969, provides an idea of the original splendour of the monument. In 1984 all the architectural elements have been gathered according to typological and functional criteria and they were carefully catalogued by Fr. E. Alliata. This preliminary work will provide more solid ground for an ideal reconstruction of the complex. For the time being, we offer the hypothetical reconstruction suggested by Watzinger.


Reconstruction

The friars reconstructing the Synagogue

The synagogue is made up of four units, namely the prayer hall, the eastern courtyard, the southern porch, and a side-room near the outer NW corner of the prayer hall.

The prayer hall, with the facade facing S, i. e. toward Jerusalem, is rectangular in ground plan, the inner sides measuring 23 m from N to S, and 17.28 m from E to W. A U-shaped stylobate divides the spacious central nave from the E, W and N aisles. Two rows of stone benches were set along the peripheral walls of the E and W aisles. Strangely enough, the N aisle did not have benches. The inner walls of the prayer hall were decorated with painted plaster and stuccoes. The focal point of the prayer hall was in the Jerusalem-oriented wall of the central nave; prayers were said facing the three openings of the facade. The scrolls of the Law to be read during the religious gatherings were permanently kept on this S side of the central nave. However, two stages can be detected. In the original stage, dating back to the construction of the synagogue, two "bemas" were built on both sides of the central entrance. Only their square foundations (2.90 m) are preserved. Similar "aediculae" have been found in other synagogues, namely in Sardis, Nabratein, Beth Shearim, Gush Alav. In a second stage, a more sophisticated "teba" was built in the same place, covering the whole width of the central nave

Inside

Inside the Synagogue

The interpretation of the side-room near the NW corner of the prayer hall is controversial. The subsidiary chamber, built entirely with basalt stone blocks, belongs to the original stage of the white synagogue. It is entered only from the prayer hall through a doorway still "in situ", while along the outer walls two flights of steps are partially preserved. Some scholars assumed in the past that the side room was meant as a shelter for the Holy Ark which was brought out to the S side of the central nave only during the worship service. This interpretation, however, is no longer tenable after the discovery of the two symmetrical "aediculae" on both sides of the central entrance. The outer steps are generally interpreted as leading to the upper gallery for women. The existence, however, of such matroneum is still an open question which perhaps can be solved only after all the architectural elements of the synagogue are properly analysed.

The prayer hall directly communicated with the eastern courtyard through a doorway. The central space of the trapezoidal courtyard was surrounded on three sides by a roofed portico; three doorways were set on the N wall and two on the S side. The three large openings along the E side are not doorways but windows, since they are much higher than the street level. On the stone slabs of the pavement several "games" are still preserved. Most probably they were etched only in the Arab period, when the synagogue went out of use. In fact the same "games" were found in the prayer hall and even in some stones of the main walls of the synagogue.

the south facade

The southern side with one of the dominating doorways
Large image

Along the S flank of the prayer hall and of the E court a porch was set with two flights of steps on the E and W ends. Another large staircase was located near the NE corner of the court.

Recent excavations clarified the long history of the white synagogue: (1) the prayer hall and the NW side room were built in the late fourth century A.D.; (2) the E court was added later on and was completed after the mid-fifth century A.D.; at the same time the S porch was remodelled; (3) the synagogue remained in use through the whole Byzantine period and was abandoned during the seventh century A.D.; (4) after the final abandonment, several stones of the synagogue were reused in some private dwellings of the Arab period or reduced to mortar.

the synagogue

Another view of the Synagogue

As for the original dating of the white synagogue, both Wilson and Orfali still believed that the precious remains were nothing less than the famous first century synagogue. To the contrary most scholars in the past, following Watzinger's theory, dated the white synagogue to be around the late second-early third century A.D. All these theories, based on stylistic and historical considerations are no longer tenable. Archaeological data gathered in many seasons of excavations since 1969 make it clear that the prayer hall was built in the late fourth century A.D. These revolutionary conclusions are based on more than 30,000 Late Roman coins and on the study of the pottery.




© copyright 2001. Text written by Fr. Stanislao Loffreda ofm. Reproduction, retrieval or redistribution of this material is not permitted without prior permission of the author reachable at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (sbfnet@netvision.net)



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