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1,500-year-old Mosaic Floor Unveiled in Ancient Synagogue Ruins

A 1,500-year-old mosaic floor in an ancient synagogue in the western Negev was unveiled to the public by Israeli authorities on Monday.
By Hana Levi Julian
First Publish: 3/30/2009, 10:05 AM / Last Update: 3/30/2009, 11:45 AM

Israel News Photo: (Niki Davidov/IAA)

A spectacular 1,500-year-old mosaic floor in an ancient synagogue in the western Negev was unveiled to the public on Monday.

The mosaic, which is part of a synagogue from the Byzantine period (fifth and sixth centuries in the Common Era) is located in the community of Ma'on-Nirim.

A stunning portrayal of symbols from the period, the 3.70 x 7.80-meter Byzantine work of art is decorated with a seven-branched menorah and the images of various animals common to the area, among them the Lion of Judah.

Scenes of everyday life, including wine production from the surrounding vineyards, grace the medallions that dance along a vine winding around the floor.

Archaeologists said that the coins, bone and metal artifacts that were found on the floor probably belonged to the Holy Ark and the ornamental curtain in front of the ark. Fragments of glass and ceramic lamps were also present, as were dozens of amulets, some of which were related to women who were asking for good health. 

A large panel with an Aramaic inscription is also incorporated into the mosaic itself, the upper part of which blesses all of the community, followed by a dedication to three individuals who donated generous contributions.

Similar mosaics and panels have been found in synagogue ruins in Susya and at an archaeological site in the national park at Ein Gedi as well. 

A special ceremony was held on Monday by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Eshkol Regional Council and the Jewish National Fund to officially inaugurate the new tourist attraction.

The mosaic floor and the remains of the synagogue were first discovered during salvage excavations that were undertaken on behalf of the Department of Antiquities in 1957. It was damaged when the road to Kibbutz Nir Oz was paved that year. 

However, the condition of the mosaic deteriorated in recent years as a result of the unsuitable conditions in which the piece was kept, and a lack of maintenance.

In 2006, it was removed from the site and transferred for treatment to the conservation laboratories at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.

The conservation work on the mosaic and the archaeological remains of the ancient synagogue was carried out by a team of mosaic conservators with the Conservation Department of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

New signage, access roads, walking paths with disabled access and a new entrance to the site have all been created with special funding by Sandy Galet. Future development plans for the site include a picnic area and walking paths in the nearby forest. The entrance to the new-ancient mosaic and archaeological remains of the ancient synagogue may be accessed from Highway 232.

Photos by Niki Davidov, courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority.