The Art and Architecture of Late Antique Synagogues
RACHEL HACHLILI University of Haifa
One of the main contributions of this exhibition is that, for the first time, material evidence for synagogues in the Land of Israel has been assembled in a single place. Pieces that left their homeland over a century ago only to reside in European collections have been brought together with artifacts that were excavated only a few years ago to tell the story of the synagogue and its development in the Land of Israel during the Roman and Byzantine periods. This chapter surveys the remains of ancient synagogues in the Land of Israel, stressing both the unifying features of these buildings and the uniqueness of each building. I will also suggest parallels with Christian and pagan architecture and art. We will begin by briefly presenting the architecture of Second Temple period synagogues and then move on to the architecture and art of synagogues during late antiquity.
Though synagogues during the Second Temple period are mentioned in a number of literary sources, and even in an inscription from Jerusalem, 1 no building was identified as a synagogue until the excavation of Masada by Yigael Yadin, son of E.L. Sukenik, during the early 1960s. 2 Since then structures at Herodium, 3 Gamla, 4 Migdal, 5 and Capernaum (Plate XXI) 6 have been interpreted as synagogues. 7
The structures at Masada, Herodium, and Gamla are all somewhat similar in architecture. The largest is Gamla, 18.5 X 24.2 meters. All are rectangular halls divided by rows of columns into a central nave and side aisles. At Masada, Herodium, and Gamla stepped benches were erected on all four walls of the hall facing the center. The focal point of