Walking in a Byzantine-Era Synagogue

Bimah in Umm el-Kanatir Synagogue. Golan Heights. Israel.
The Bimah at the front of the Umm el-Kanatir Synagogue
Almost anyone who has traveled throughout the north of Israel, especially if you have gone with a tour guide who took you to places you might not have visited on your own, has seen the ruins of Byzantine-era synagogues. There are many, with some of the more famous or impressive ones found at Bar’am, Tiberias and Tzippori. But on a trip to the Golan Heights this past week, I had the pleasure of revisiting a very exciting Byzantine synagogue that I had first seen almost exactly a year ago.

The synagogues built in the Galilee and Golan during this era typically have some common design elements. For example, while most ancient religions had their temples facing east, synagogues face Jerusalem, wherever in the world they are located. So while North American synagogues face east, in the Galilee, they face to the south.

What is interesting about Galilean synagogues from the Byzantine period is that the main entrance was typically on the southern wall as well. Meaning that one would enter the synagogue from the front of the building, right next to the ark holding the Torah scroll. I guess that’s one way to discourage people from showing up late!

Other common elements of Galilean synagogues are their basilica structure, and their similar placement of exterior doors, windows and arches. Some have similar types of mosaic floors as well.

Construction on the completed first story of the Umm el-Kanatir synagogue.
A wider view of the now-completed first story of the Umm el-Kanatir synagogue, and the crane above it.
But most of what we know about these synagogues comes from the archaeological remains we’ve found, in varying degrees of ruin or preservation. And while there are some that are fairly well preserved (notably the synagogue in Bar’am and to a lesser degree on Mount Meiron), none are complete. At least not until now.

Or more accurately, not until a few years from now! I’m referring to one of the most exciting projects in archaeological restoration in Israel today. The synagogue in Umm el-Kanatir, first built in the 5th Century, was destroyed in the massive earthquake of 749 C.E. (estimated at 7-7.5 on the Richter scale). This same quake is famous for destroying the cities of Tiberias, Beit Shean and Susita, and for heavily damaging buildings such as Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque.

What makes Umm el-Kanatir different, however, is that its location was fairly remote. So while many ruins through history have been plundered to use their building materials in newer buildings, the ruins here never made their way into secondary usage. Virtually all of the stones were left exactly where they fell during the earthquake!

Umm el-Kanatir Synagogue, June 2011
Stones waiting to be placed in the reconstructed synagogue, as of 1 year ago.
So a few years ago, a plan was developed to rebuild this synagogue in its entirety, returning it to its complete glory. First they did some 3-D computer imaging of the piles of rubble to identify the shapes and locations of each basalt stone. Then they used computer simulations to figure out where the stones would have fallen, and “virtually” rebuilt the entire structure with those images. Then, they began the painstaking work of actually reconstructing the synagogue.

A large crane rests on two tracks, so that it straddles the building site, and can move from one side to the other. The crane itself slides along a crossbar. First, they used it to move each stone out, numbering each one, and placing them in an orderly fashion in the work area. Then they began to put the stones back together.

I am not certain, but I’ve been told that since this is considered “new construction” it will actually have to be brought up to modern earthquake standards, so the new building will look like the original, but will actually be stronger and sturdier. And when it is done, we will finally be able to walk through a fully-built Byzantine-era synagogue!

There are more interesting stories about the town, but I think I will leave them for another blog post, or for when I take you on a tour of Umm el-Kanatir. But this site will only grow in popularity. They are paving a new access road, and work is progressing at a nice pace. The entire first story is now complete, whereas it was much less complete when I visited a year earlier.

Keep your eyes peeled for more news on this site, and let me know when you want me to take you there!

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