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Early Synagogues in the Galilee

Date of Submission: 30/06/2000
Criteria: (iii)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Delegation Permanente d'Israel aupres de l'UNESCO
Coordinates: Lat. 32°54' N / Long. 35°35' E
Ref.: 1470

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The synagogue was a revolutionary institution from its inception, embodying dramatic religious and social changes. It appears to have been a uniquely Jewish creation that influenced the subsequent development of the Christian church and the Muslim mosque. As its Greek name - synagogue - "place of assembly" - attests, it functioned as a community center, housing the activities of school, court, hostel, charity fund, and meeting place for the local Jewish community. In Second Temple and later sources, the word synagogue often refers to a congregation and not to a building. The early synagogues of the Galilee were the first buildings representing monotheistic space where people worshipped without idols. They were also the initial prototypes where Jesus prayed. The remains of as many as 50 different synagogues were identified in the Galilee, one of the most concentrated sites for synagogues in the world at that time. These early synagogues included Meron, Gush Halav, Navorin, Bar Am and Bet Alfa and Korazim, and Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. The earliest synagogue remains in Palestine date to the late first century BCE. or by the early first century CE. By this time the synagogue was a developed central institution throughout the Jewish world. From the fourth to seventh centuries there is evidence of scores of synagogue being built throughout the country. At times these archaeological remains confirm the written sources. The bulk of synagogue remains comes from the Galilee, which was the center of Jewish life in late antiquity (from the Late Roman or Byzantine period to the beginning of the Arab period). The dating of the remains of most ancient synagogues has led to a revolution in understanding the Jewish community in Palestine, which flourished here until the beginning of the Middle Ages. A salient example of this secure status is the monumental synagogue at Capernaum, completed in the 5th century, which overshadows a more modest church from the Byzantine period located nearby. The early Galilean synagogue often features a lavishly decorated monumental facade, facing Jerusalem with three entrances, windows and other architectural features carved in typical Latin-Roman style. They had three rows of columns dividing the inner space benches along two or three walls, and a flagstone floor. A decisive factor in the physical appearance of the Palestinian synagogue was the influence of Hellenistic culture on Aramaic and Greek which were rampant in the Near East at the time, resulting in the discovery of more than 85 percent of all synagogue inscriptions in those languages. Roman influence can also be seen in the architecture. Many buildings, especially those in the Galilee are pattered after some form of Roman civic building; others shared the Christian basilica and featured a central nave, two aisles, a narthex and an atrium. The synagogue adopted many of the prevalent artistic forms of ornaments of the times. The stone carvings found in many Galilean synagogues are based on motifs widespread in late antiquity and are used in the many floor mosaics.