Unique Mosaics Found In Ancient Israeli Synagogue May Depict Alexander The Great And Samson
UNC professor Jodi Magness (center) and UNC students (left to right) Brian Coussens, Caroline Carter, Jocelyn Burney, Jonathan Branch, and Kelly Gagnon, with the 2012 Huqoq mosaic. (Photo by Jim Haberman)
Did Alexander the Great meet a Jewish priest, and was this meeting enshrined in a mosaic floor? It’s probably just a legend, but the mosaic is also the first non-biblical one ever to be found in an ancient synagogue, at a site called Huqoq. Since 2011, Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at UNC Chapel Hill, has been leading excavations at Huqoq, near Galilee in Israel. And for the last three summers, she has uncovered fantastic mosaics unlike anything that has been seen before.
Huqoq is the modern name for an ancient Jewish village that, for all intents and purposes, did not seem particularly special when Magness first began to excavate it. A freshwater spring located nearby allowed Huqoq to grow into a large settlement that flourished particularly in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine periods. The village includes houses and a synagogue, and outside of the settlement are cemetery plots, a wine press and olive press, quarries, and two miqwa’ot (ritual baths).
Excavations in 2012 revealed there was more to Huqoq than initially imagined as the first mosaics were discovered: an inscription with female faces and a small portion of a scene of Samson with the foxes. In 2013, the team found Samson carrying the gate of Gaza depicted in a mosaic as well as a mosaic with three horizontal registers showing a meeting between important officials.
The three-part mosaic is particularly obscure, and Magness wrote in her 2014 archaeological report that “it has no parallels in other ancient synagogues.” In an email to me, Magness said that “the battle elephants indicate it is a non-historical scene–not from the Hebrew Bible.” There are two main options for the best interpretation of this mosaic, she notes: either a scene associated with Maccabean martyrdom accounts or the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.
This meeting likely did not take place historically, but reports of the legend are found in the rabbinical literature and in the writings of the ancient Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In Jewish Antiquities (11.317-354), Josephus relays a story about Alexander the Great visiting the Jewish high priest Jaddus:
And when Jaddus understood that Alexander was not far from the city, he went out in procession, with the priests and the multitude of the citizens. […] For Alexander, when he saw the multitude at a distance, in white garments, while the priests stood clothed with fine linen, and the high-priest in purple and scarlet clothing, with his mitre on his head, having the golden plate whereon the name of God was engraved, he approached by himself, and adored that name, and first saluted the high-priest.
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