Culture

The Wonder and Beauty of Israel's Old, Old Mosaics

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In the fall of 1983 we took a sort of pilot tour of Israel, a year before moving here. For me, naturally, as someone who had never been outside of North America, it was all a breathtaking experience.

Perhaps most amazing of all, though, was our visit to Masada—the mountain fortress by the Dead Sea where, somewhat over two thousand years ago, a group of Jewish guerrillas plus their families committed mass suicide rather than be taken captive by the Romans. Masada has remains of the synagogue, storehouses, and bathhouses the rebels set up in the years they hid out there. It offers stunning views of the surrounding, austerely beautiful desert countryside.

Yet for me the most arresting thing at Masada was not any of this, but something seemingly much more plain—one (I no longer know which) of its mosaic floors, which were laid in the Herodian period about a century before the rebels were there.

As mosaics go, these—the one on this page is an example—aren’t particularly impressive. No, what got to me was a shock of intimacy—intimacy with an ancient person, very possibly a Hebrew-speaking Jew, possibly even a forefather of mine, who had once been there toiling over the details of that very mosaic floor I was looking at.

Masada with its wonders, including its mosaics, was excavated in the early 1960s. From the 1920s to the present, though, many other mosaic floors of ancient synagogues, churches, and pagan structures—generally dating back about 1500 years—have been found in the Holy Land. They offer that same thrill of communion with an unknown, ancient artist along with much richer and more artistically accomplished contents.

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This lady was found in the Galilee at Tzippori—two millennia ago a Jewish administrative and religious center, now an archeological site that includes the remains of no less than a sixth-century synagogue, a Roman theater, two early churches, and a Crusader fortress, with a total of over forty mosaics.

She’s known as the Mona Lisa of the Galilee, and the mosaic floor that she’s part of was found in a building known as the Roman villa. The mosaic as a whole is a kind of tribute in fifteen panels to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and hell-raising revelry; the largest panel shows his drinking contest with Heracles, another divine Greek figure.

Indeed, that’s a naked Cupid behind the lady’s right shoulder; yet she herself has an expression that seems tranquilly detached from all the partying. This site puts it well, calling her

a captivating woman adorned with earrings and a laurel garland. Her gaze is riveting; in fact, it appears she looks directly at you from every corner of the room….

Much speculation has been made as to the identity of this mysterious beauty. … The first possibility that comes to mind is the lady of the house. …

But perhaps this woman was a legendary beauty—a “superstar” of her time….

Then again…perhaps [the artist] used his artistic license to create a monument to the great love of his life—mother, wife, daughter, lover—whose radiant beauty would be admired by all who gazed upon her, but whose identity would remain hidden.

Perhaps; but the identity of this great artist, and what motivated him, will remain hidden as well.

And whoever the woman was, her likeness stayed buried under the sand for many centuries. It was only about twenty years ago that archeologists scraped away at the sand until she emerged—timeless and tranquil as ever, still pondering whatever it is she ponders.

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One day in 1928, when the Zionist pioneers at Kibbutz Beit Alpha—founded six years earlier, also in northern Israel a little south and east of Tzippori—were digging irrigation channels, they stumbled upon something pretty striking: the remains of what turned out to be a sixth-century synagogue.

And it was a year later that the legendary archeologist Eliezer Sukenik, excavating the site, discovered the synagogue’s mosaic floor. Its mosaics are intact, and are part of the many but dramatic proofs of ongoing Jewish presence in the Land of Israel in that difficult period after losing sovereignty to the Romans a few centuries earlier.

The above detail from Beit Alpha shows the Binding of Isaac, one of the most epochal scenes of the Book of Genesis. It’s one of several Binding of Isaac mosaics from that period that have been found in various places in Israel. It makes sense that the theme—of God rescinding his supposed death-warrant on a forefather of the Jews at the last moment—would have held a lot of appeal in those challenging days.

The Hebrew words from a millennium and a half ago can be read by any Israeli schoolchild of today. Over on the right, above the boy who’s supposedly about to be sacrificed—Yitzhak (Isaac); in the middle, above his dour, very unhappy father holding a knife—Avraham (Abraham); and to the left, beneath the hand of the heaven-sent angel— “Al tishlach”—literally “Don’t send,” corresponding to the “Lay not thine hand upon the lad” of Genesis 22:12.

In this case we at least know the artists’ names—Marianos and his son Hanina, inscribed in Greek at one end of the mosaic floor. Their style is naïve but still precise and vivid.

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At the center of that same mosaic floor at Beit Alpha is a zodiac wheel—also the work of Marianos & Son. The four ladies who surround and seem to support it are the four seasons, and at the center that’s Helios the Greek sun god with his horse-drawn chariot.

Why these Greco-Roman mythological motifs at the heart of a synagogue—along with, again, the perfectly recognizable Hebrew names for the twelve signs of the zodiac? According to this site:

Although condemned by the prophets, astrology made much headway among the Jews (as among other nations) during the first centuries of the common era….

But…the signs of the Zodiac were given specifically Jewish meanings and associations: the lion became the royal lion of David, the twins became Cain and Abel, etc.

This site gives a different explanation—undoubtedly reflecting the fact that no one really knows for sure: “It seems that by the 6th century C.E., these pagan images were perceived as devoid of religious significance and may have been seen merely as symbols of the calendar.”

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And finally we come to the latest amazing find, announced only last month: a 1500-year-old mosaic floor under the fields of Kibbutz Beit Kama, just north of where I live here in scorchingly hot southern Israel.

The floor is part of what appears to have been a public building — which, in turn, is part of a whole Byzantine-era village. Occupying about an acre and a half, it included a church, houses, storerooms, cisterns, and agricultural fields.

This mosaic floor is red, black, and yellow and, archeologists say, unique (so far) because of its large number of elements, which include birds like doves and peacocks, geometric patterns, and various kinds of local flora.

As in most of these cases, this discovery was accidental. It was part of a survey that needed to be done before extending Highway 6 to our outlying area — which needs it badly. And there’s a lot more where that came from: more treasures of meticulous, enchanting mosaic art lying just under the fields of a timeless land.

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Updated: See P. David Hornik’s new article today at PJ Lifestyle:

Israel’s First Astronaut: A Tale of Tragedy and Miracle

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images via shutterstock / slavapolo