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


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.