6 Ancient Synagogues to Visit in the Galilee
The Galilee is a treasure trove of ancient synagogues with remains that you can still see today. These synagogues date back to Second Temple-era Judaism and the time of early Christianity, so they are of interest to everyone. When planning your trip to Israel, try to fit in visits to a few of these – each one has its own interesting features and back story.
This fourth or fifth century place of worship was at the center of a flourishing town renowned for its high-quality wheat. The synagogue was built from basalt, the Galilee’s most common stone, and decorated with elaborate pictures of flowers and fauna as well as geometric patterns. The structure's most striking feature is the Moses Seat, inscribed in Aramaic, where the most respected member of the community sat.
The town of Capernaum is mentioned frequently in the New Testament and has been visited often by pilgrims throughout the centuries. The synagogue was quite elaborate in its day, with Corinthian columns and stonework reliefs of plants and animals, which can still be seen today. Capernaum was briefly inhabited by both Jews and Christians, and the names of the synagogue’s donors also appear in the New Testament.
At Hamat Tiberias you can see the earliest synagogue mosaic discovered in Israel. The stunningly detailed decoration is divided into three panels, the most compelling of which has a zodiac theme, with a depiction of Helios the sun god and four women who represent the four seasons. The synagogue was built in the heyday of the city of Tiberias, when the Jewish high court (the Sanhedrin) still functioned here.
For another beautiful, ancient mosaic floor, visit the Beit Alpha synagogue. The floor here is decorated with the signs of the zodiac, the Ark of the Covenant and the offering of Isaac. The doorway contains an Aramaic inscription mentioning the artists and the date of the floor laying. Don’t miss the audiovisual presentation, which focuses on daily life in the ancient village and the creation of the mosaic.
In addition to a zodiac mosaic, Tzippori also features depictions of the rituals of the Temple, a symbol of hope in the coming redemption and a return to the ancient rites. Tzippori was the site of the redaction of the Mishnah and later became a mixed Jewish and Christian town. Alongside the synagogue are a Roman theater and the famous “Mona Lisa of the Galilee” mosaic.
This basalt synagogue was decorated with pictures of Greek gods, mythological beasts, fruit and vegetation. As you enter, note the water cistern and basin for ritual hand washing outside the doorway. The doorway itself is inscribed with the names of the synagogue’s sponsors. The facility served the Jewish population of Baram from the second century CE all the way through the Middle Ages! It demonstrates the continuity of Jewish life in the Holy Land despite the destruction of the Temple and exile of the greater part of the population by the Romans.
Rich Symbolism All Around
From mosaics with fascinating imagery juxtapositions to historical contexts that tell the story of Christianity's emergence thousands of years ago, these six synagogues have quite a bit to offer visitors, enriching our perspective on the continuity of faith, ritual and community life in the ancient Holy Land.