Arbel Synagogue

In our previous post we reported on the Arbel Fortresses and mentioned that we would describe the Arbel Synagogue in the next post.

Communal worship began in the Tabernacle and continued in the subsequent temples of Jerusalem. Synagogues emerged much later in time. Worship in synagogues was very different from that in the Temple. In the latter, cultic practice was led by a small group of priests and other officials, with the ordinary worshipers relegated to outer courtyards. In synagogues, leadership was open to all. Prayer and study replaced sacrifice, and ceremonies could be observed by everybody. 

The first synagogues that were built in the Land in the 1st century, e.g. Gamla, Capernaum and Magdala, were flat-roofed and had benches built around the colonnaded interior. Later Byzantine synagogues had pitched, tiled roofs and were more elaborately decorated.

Synagogues were religious, cultural, and social centres of the Jewish community. Communal prayers and the study of the Hebrew scriptures were conducted for young students and adults, often in rooms set aside for that purpose. Whereas the main part of the synagogue, the assembly room, functioned as a meeting place with the emphasis on the Shabbat service, sacred meals were also served there, and communal law courts sat there.

The most important part of the Shabbat service was the reading of the Torah and its exposition, as noted by the author of Acts 15:21:

“For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

In the fourth century, a Byzantine style synagogue was built in the centre of the settlement of Arbel, on the west side of the middle residential terrace. In 1987-’88, Zvi Ilan and Avraham Izdarechet began preservation and restoration work on the synagogue and its surroundings, and they asked me to prepare a reconstruction drawing.

Remains of the synagogue. The fertile Arbel Valley is visible beyond the synagogue. Wikipedia.

Its plan recalls other Byzantine synagogues in Galilee such as Capernaum, Chorazin, Tiberias, Meroth and others. Originally, the main entrance was in the eastern wall and was partially constructed from one gigantic rock.

The remains of the entrance to the synagogue. Broken parts of the lintel can be seen beyond the doorway. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer 1988.
The Arbel synagogue had been surveyed by Kohl and Watzinger in the late 19th century and they suggested this reconstruction of the entrance.

The entance to the synagogue was reconstructed in the 1990’s, using the fallen parts. The fertile Arbel Valley is on the right below the synagogue. PikiWiki Israel.

 In the north wall of the synagogue, an installation that resembles a charity chest or community treasury has been found.

The community treasury. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer 1988.

The synagogue had the shape of a basilica and was oriented north-south and measured 20 by 18.5 meters. In contrast to the village houses that were built of dark basalt, the synagogue was constructed of limestone blocks. The interior had three rows of pillars with heart-shaped pillars in the corners and four steplike benches were built along three of the walls.

A round niche for the Torah ark was later constructed in the southern wall, with a stone platform (bema) in front of it for the reading of the Torah. Such a feature was characteristic of later synagogues. There was also an additional entrance made in the middle of the north wall at this time. This new axis from north to south was designed to direct worshipers to face towards Jerusalem when they entered the synagogue through the northern entrance.

The three rows of columns on the first floor had Corinthian capitals, while those of the second story were topped by Ionic capitals. Smaller Ionic pilasters, flanking double windows, adorned the walls of the upper story.

Reconstruction of the Arbel Synagogue by Leen Ritmeyer.

A large, paved courtyard was made in front of the main entrance. It may have served as what is called in rabbinic literature a “door within a door”, that is a kind of entrance room or place of assembly. The building was topped by a tiled roof.

The Arbel Synagogue continued to function until the earthquake of 747 AD, when it was severely damaged, and the settlement destroyed.

The fortresses of Arbel

A case of mistaken identity

Judith Sudilovsky reported in the Jerusalem Post on the opening of the Arbel Fortress following 1.5 years of conservation work. 

“Towering majestically over Lake Kinneret, looking out over a breathtaking view of the upper and lower Galilee including Mt. Nitai, and further towards the Golan Heights and Mt. Hermon, the stark cliff of Mt. Arbel has been witness to plenty of history.”

The cliff hanging Arbel Fortress in question is known as Qala’at Ma’an. It was built in the beginning of the 17th century AD by Fahr al-Din II, of the Druze Ma’an dynasty, governor of Lebanon and Galilee.

The Arbel Fortress in 1988 showing its precarious state of preservation. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer.

“The fortress was not allowed to stand for too long, and within a decade of its construction Ottoman forces destroyed it for reasons unknown. Time and nature did their share, and over the centuries the three-story fortress—a popular site for intrepid hikers to visit–fell into great disrepair making it dangerous for visitors.”

Reconstruction of the Qala’at Ma’an Fortress.

Despite its short existence and subsequent neglect by both nature and pillage by men, the Arbel Fortress still has an imposing presence hanging halfway down the cliff.  We are grateful for this conservation project that makes the site more accessible for visitors who can also enjoy the spectacular views of the surroundings. 

View through Wadi Hammam (Valley of the Pigeons in Arabic) to the Sea of Galilee. The Arbel cliffs are on the right and Mt. Nitai on the left. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer.

Arbel is a site of uncommon natural beauty with steep cliffs plunging down toward the Sea of Galilee, overlooking Wadi Hammam, Magdala, the place where Mary Magdalene lived, and Capernaum.

The steep cliffs viewed from the Arbel lookout point. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer.

For a long time, it was thought that Fahr al-Din’s citadel was the fortress of the Jewish rebels who fought against Herod. The late Zvi Ilan conducted a systematic survey of these caves in 1987- ‘88, in which I participated. The actual caves were located on a trail on which, for decades, hikers walked to the Ottoman fortress. Initially, Zvi had no idea that the real caves were hidden only a few meters away! During the Hasmonean period, about one hundred caves were hewn in the cliff for residential purposes and protected by walls. Some caves contained two or three rooms. The survey showed that the outer wall of the fortress of Fahr al-Din was built in front of some of those Hasmonean caves. This caves consisted of rooms, cisterns, stairways and even a mikveh that was found on the third floor.

This section, taken behind the outer walls of the fortress of Fahr al-Din, shows that it was built in front of Hasmonean caves. On the upper level a mikveh was found showing that these caves were occupied by religious Jews.

To his great surprise, Zvi Ilan discovered another cave fortress to the east of the Ottoman fortress that was 75 meters long, 14 meters wide and 10 to 12 meters high. A long wall was built in front of it, to the top of the hewn rock. An interior wooden walkway was constructed between the caves and the wall. The date of this fortress could not be established without a future excavation. However, according to Zvi, the possibility that this fortress was built as part of the preparations for self-defence at the site at the end of the Second Temple period, should not be ruled out.

This fortress was probably built as part of the preparations for self-defence by Jewish rebels in the cliffs of Arbel at the end of the Second Temple period.

As mentioned in Judith’s article, Arbel has seen plenty of history even though it is so little known. What is known about its history?

The ancient settlement and lookout post of Arbel may have been the one that is mentioned in the Bible as Beth-Arbel. This fortress was destroyed by Shalmaneser V in 722 BC, when he was on his way to capture Samaria: “all your fortresses will be devastated – as Shalman[eser] devastated Beth Arbel on the day of battle, when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children.” (Hosea 10:14). The defeat of this settlement must have been particularly brutal and an example to Israel of the cruelty of the Assyrian invaders.

The fertile land on the Valley of Arbel that is watered by the abundant water that flowed through it, enabled the inhabitants of Arbel to grow grain, olives and grapes, and flax that was used in the production of linen. This supported a strong economic base for Arbel that was built on terraces in the rocky slope on the northern periphery of the Arbel Valley.

The fertile Arbel Valley is visible at top left behind the Arbel Synagogue. Wikipedia.

Two great legal minds of the mid-second century BC, the sage Nitai the Arbelite, who was born here, and Joshua ben Perahiah taught Torah using a Deuteronomy scroll that these two sages had received from Simon the Just, who was then High Priest in Jerusalem (Mishnah Avot 1:6). Nitai was also vice-president of the Sanhedrin. This indicates the high level of development of Arbel as a spiritual centre for Galilee. 

The ancient settlement was almost entirely surrounded by cemeteries. Later traditions mention Arbel as the burial place of Nitai of Arbela; Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and several of her brothers; and that of Seth the son of Adam, and the exilarch Hezekiah, a leader of the Jewish community from the time of the Babylonian exile.

Arbel is now also known for its unique system of the above-mentioned fortified caves where Hasmonean loyalists fighting the Galilean Zealots hid. In 161 BC, a deadly battle took place at Adasa between the Maccabean forces led by Judas and the Seleucid forces that were commanded by Nicanor. The Seleucids were defeated and Nicanor was killed. In order to revenge his death, Demetrius the Seleucid king sent his general Bacchides the following year to the land of Judea. “They took the road to Galilee and besieged the Mesalot (fortified caves) in Arbel and captured it and put many people to death” (1 Mac. 9:2). 

In 38 BC, Herod tried to conquer the land with Roman support and battled the supporters of Antigonus II, the last Hasmonean king of Judea, who were hiding out in these caves. Herod’s men fought for forty days to no avail. Herod then devised a plan whereby soldiers would be lowered from above in crates connected to iron chains. After a bloody battle, Herod’s forces eventually routed the Jewish rebels.

 King Herod defeats the Israelite rebels hiding in the rock cliffs of Mt. Arbel by lowering Roman soldiers down in chests. Etching by Jan Luiken, 1649-1712.

In 66 AD, at the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman war, Josephus fortified the caves with walls and used them as storage base at the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman war. 

After the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the Bar-Kochba rebellion that lasted from 132-136 AD, many Jerusalem Temple priests fled to villages in Galilee. It was then that the association of Arbel with the concept of Messianic redemption became widespread. One poet from Tiberias claimed to have seen an appearance of the Messiah in the plain of Arbel on the eve of Passover. 

In the fourth century, a synagogue was built in Arbel (see image above), which we will report on in the next post.

Thanks to the conservation work, both these fortresses and the caves can be safely visited again, a wonderful opportunity for hikers and people that love the land. These caves are also located on the Jesus Trail. This is a 40 mile (65 km) long hiking and pilgrimage route following the road that Jesus would have taken when he moved from Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum. It goes through the Wadi Hammam that is located between the Horns of Hattin of Crusader fame, or rather infamy. Hikers will surely enjoy seeing the renovated Ottoman fortress and the many caves that bring history to life.

Palatial Mansion publication

A palace fit for a High Priest

My friend and colleague Hillel Geva, director of the Israel Exploration Society and editor cum publisher of the Jewish Quarter Excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem Conducted by Nahman Avigad, 1969-1982, sent me a copy of Volume VIII of this important series. Hillel is to be congratulated on the preparation and publication of this beautiful volume which sets a high standard of how excavations should be studied and published.

The cover photograph of Vol VIII shows Hillel sitting at right near the bathroom of the Palatial Mansion. The mosaic floor of the bathroom was decorated with a colorful rosette. The residents would have enjoyed the spectacular view of the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives in the background.

This Volume VIII describes the excavation of the archaeological remains of the Palatial Mansion, which, as suggested by Avigad, may have been the Palace of the High Priest[1]. This mansion may have been built by Annas who was High Priest from 6-15 AD, as he was one of the few people who could have afforded to build such a large and lavishly decorated residence. The family of Annas was very wealthy as they controlled the Temple Market that was set up in the Temple Courts and out of bounds for normal moneychangers. Josephus called one of the sons of Annas “a great hoarder of money”. 

This building covers 600 square meters and is one of the largest residences dating from the Second Temple period ever uncovered, not only in Jerusalem, but in the whole of the country. This mansion is located on the eastern edge of the southwestern hill which slopes down to the Tyropoeon Valley. Overlooking the Temple Mount, it would have been considered prime real estate in the 1st century AD, as indeed it is today.

In the first chapter of this magnificent volume, Hillel describes the stratigraphy and architecture of the Palatial Mansion in great detail. The structure is built on two levels, each consisting of two stories and has many rooms built around a central open courtyard. The walls of several of these rooms were decorated with fresco and stucco designs. Seven rooms had mosaic floors, three of which were decorated with colorful carpets.

The floor of the vestibule of the Palatial Mansion was decorated with this beautiful mosaic design. It had a central rosette surrounded by circular and square frames. Pomegranates can be seen in the corners between the round and square designs. This reconstruction drawing was made for a model of the mansion that was exhibited for many years in the central courtyard.

Eight mikva’ot (ritual baths), catering for the purification requirements of the residents, were found in the mansion indicating that the complex was occupied by priests who served in the Temple.

The mosaic floor in front of the double entrance to a mikveh. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer.

After making the publication drawings and studying the architectural remains, I made this new reconstruction drawing to give an overall idea of what the mansion may have looked like:

A perspective reconstruction drawing of the 6,500 sq. feet (600m2) residence dating from the Second Temple period and found in the Jewish Quarter excavations in Jerusalem. Known as the Palatial Mansion because of its unusually large size, it is now part of the restored Herodian Quarter. Its overall plan, centred round a paved courtyard, makes it clear that it was one living unit and was not divided into smaller residences. A narrow street ran along its northern side.
The sumptuousness of its fittings makes it worthy of the term “palace”. It contained eight ritual baths, one evidently built to serve a number of people with one door for entry and one for exit as seen in the lower foreground.

In this volume, every wall and locus is recorded and accompanied by photographs, plans and sections. Of necessity, this takes up the bulk of the book. Different authors have written short chapters on the fresco and stucco decoration, mosaic floors, and ritual baths.

The building was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, while it was in the middle of undergoing extensive renovations with fresco wall decorations being covered over with white stucco. This consisted of broad panels in between two bands of imitation masonry, modelled on “headers and stretchers.” However, on the basis of the stucco remains of the northern wall of the Reception Room that extended to the greatest height, it was clear that there was an additional band of decoration just below the ceiling. This different style of imitation stone work could only be reconstructed on the basis of a complete panel which was found in the debris on the floor below this wall – see reconstruction drawing below.

The floor was also found littered with small fragments of decorated stucco with different patterns, which had fallen from the ceiling. Before restoration work on the Palatial Mansion began, Avigad presented me three large trays of a representative sample of ceiling fragments and asked me to try and make some sense of them. 

All the pieces showed geometrical patterns in relief. It was clear that the original design must have been divided into two parts, as some fragments had an “egg-and-dart” motif and the remainder were plain. Measuring the angles in the first group – squares, octagons and triangles of 45 degrees could be discerned. The second group consisted of squares, hexagons and triangles of 30 degrees. After trying out various possibilities and taking into consideration the dimensions of the room, the number of fragments found and their representative proportions, I hit upon this ceiling design which was later partially incorporated in the restoration.

I was not part of the original team, as I was then working as architect on the Temple Mount Excavations. However, since 1978, I have spent many years working on the publication plans of all the excavation areas of the Jewish Quarter Excavations. Each of the publication plans, elevations and sections of this magnificent residence including reconstruction drawings, were prepared by me on completion of the excavation.

It should be noted that this volume, like the previous ones, is a scientific publication and of interest to archaeologists, historians and the interested lay person. Other readers may be more interested in a popular book, such as that published by Avigad, who summarised the excavation of this extraordinary mansion in his book Discovering Jerusalem[2]. This Vol VIII is the complete excavation report, published some 30 years after the first spade went into the ground.

When the excavations were finished, a four-story high modern building, the Yeshivat Hakotel (a Jewish school for the study of the Torah and the Talmud) was built over the preserved remains. The mosaic floors were removed and, after conservation, exhibited in the Israel Museum. On completion of the building of the yeshiva, an archaeological museum, named the Herodian Quarter, or Wohl Archaeological Museum, was planned in what had become the basement of the new building. Avigad planned and directed the work for two years, from 1985-87, putting me in charge of its execution. He visited the site twice a week for a couple of hours, leaving me in charge for the rest of the time. 

Although in this Volume VIII, only just over two pages are dedicated to this restoration work, it required a lot of thought as to how best to preserve the remains and how to decide where to add stones. Some of the the walls were made higher to help the visitor with spatial orientation. The restoration of the Reception Room demanded special attention as we tried to give an impression of what the beautiful stucco decoration of both the walls and ceiling would originally have looked like. This restoration work was published in book form by Avigad[3]. I treasure my copy of this book which he gave me, inscribed with the dedication “a souvenir from a joint work”.

This large and elegant room, which measured 18 feet (6.5 m) wide and 36 feet (11 m) long, was undoubtedly the Reception Room of the large Palatial Mansion excavated in Jerusalem. The walls of the room were decorated with panels of stucco and it had an intricately designed ceiling. If this was indeed the palace of Annas the High Priest, then Jesus may have stood before him in this hall (John 18.13, Acts 4.6).
Here we see the partially restored Reception Room. The lighter color on the wall in the centre of the photo shows the added reconstruction. On the right are photographs of David Simon, an expert plasterer originally from Iran, and myself, working on the reconstruction of the stucco designs. The concrete pillar in the middle of the room is part of the support structure of the yeshiva building above. Photo: Nathaniel Ritmeyer.

This volume is a worthy addition to the previous seven volumes of the Jewish Quarter Excavations which cover the excavations of the Broad Wall, the Israelite Tower (later identified as the Middle Gate of Jer. 39:3) and other fortifications, the Byzantine Cardo and the Nea Church, and other buildings of the Second Temple period. 

Avigad passed away in 1992 and therefore was unable to publish the final reports of these important excavations directed by him. We are grateful that Hillel Geva, who served as archaeologist since the beginning of the dig, has taken upon himself to publish the results in such magnificent volumes. The next volume will describe the many small finds that were discovered in the Palatial Mansion.

[1] Avigad (1989), 76.

[2]  Avigad, N. (1980, [Hebrew]; 1983 [English]). Discovering Jerusalem (Jerusalem, Nashville).

[3]  Avigad, N. (1989), The Herodian Quarter in Jerusalem, Wohl Archaeological Museum (Jerusalem).

Capernaum’s octagonal church

from the domus ecclesia to memorial church

During the reign of Constantine the Great (306-337) and especially after his conversion in 312, Christianity spread rapidly in the Byzantine Empire and even more so in the Holy Land. After the visit in 326 AD by Queen Helena, Constantine’s mother, many Gentile pilgrims came to visit the Holy Land. Some remained and chose to live lives of seclusion in remote areas such as Sinai, around the Sea of Galilee, in the Judean Desert, and in Samaria, while others lived in towns and cities.

In the wake of this influx of pilgrims from the Byzantine Empire, the prominence of the domus ecclesia diminished and larger buildings became necessary to accommodate the many worshipers. Church buildings came into the ascendency, and their construction became the primary architectural focus during the later Byzantine period. Two kinds of churches developed: the basilica with its long hall, and the centrally designed (circular, octagonal, or hexagonal) memorial church. Basilicas were mainly used for communal worship, while the centrally designed churches commemorated special Biblical places or events.

During this time, the Gentile Christian population of Capernaum had increased dramatically and outnumbered the Jewish Christian members of the congregation. Radical changes were made to create a new Byzantine-style church inside the fourth century enclosure wall. 

The basalt foundation stones of the octagonal church and some limestone blocks of the superstructre are visible beneath the concrete beams of the modern church. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer

Substantial remains of the foundations of an octagonal church, that dated to the fifth century and was built with limestone blocks, were excavated in Capernaum. This limestone that came from the Arbel region could be carved easily and polished to a high degree. In the first half of the fifth century, the buildings that stood inside the enclosure were demolished and covered over. Instead of the domus ecclesia with its explosion of colour of the fourth century, a new and monumental was built in its place.

The walls of the inner octagon, which measured 7.9 m (26 feet) across, were built on the basalt foundations of the domus ecclesia and then another octagon, measuring 16.53 m (54.2 feet) across was added around it to complete the first phase of the new church. The church was paved with mosaics. The centre of the inner mosaic has a medallion with a peacock design, apparently symbolising immortality to the early Christians. Annexes were built to the west of the church and in the northeast and southeast corners of the square enclosure.

Sometime in the second half of the fifth century, a partial octagonal porch was added on the north, west and south, and an apse containing a baptistry on the east. This apse was constructed on the other side of the east wall of the enclosure.

The baptistry had steps leading down to it, indicating that adult baptism by immersion was practised in the fifth century.

After the Islamic invasion of 638 AD, Capernaum was abandoned and the church and synagogue, that had existed side by side, fell into ruin. After the earthquake that hit Galilee in 749 AD, Arab inhabitants began to systematically rob the buildings of their stones, leaving precious little for future archaeologists to investigate.

In 1866, Captain Charles Wilson exposed some foundations of the synagogue, with the unfortunate consequence that local people began to dig deep into the ground near the synagogue and near the church to find more limestone blocks which they either sold as building material or burned into lime. Other contractors used the exposed ruins as a quarry. 

To stop this looting the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land acquired the site in 1894 and exploratory excavations were conducted in 1905 by Heinrich Kohl and Carl Watzinger. Other excavations were conduction under leadership of F. V. Hinterkeuser and these continued until the outbreak of World war I, After the war, excavations were resumed by Gaudenzio Orfali until 1921. Orfali initiated the restoration of the Byzantine synagogue in 1922-1925.

The results of Orfalo’s restoration. Photo: Matson Collection.

In 1968, Virgilio Corbo and Stanislao Loffreda continued excavating Capernaum and conducted eighteen campaigns until 1985, and the restoration of the synagogue was continued by Corbo since 1969. It would have been great if similar efforts would have been put in the restoration of the Byzantine church, but unfortunately that won’t happen unless that new and incongruous UFO-like modern church that was built over Peter’s House (designed by the Italian architect Ildo Avetta and dedicated in 1990) would start its engines and fly off!

Nevertheless, it is thanks to the labours of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land that tourists and pilgrims can visit Capernaum again and see the place that was made famous when Jesus chose it as his hometown.

Capernaum’s House Church

the domus ecclesia from the first to the fourth century

In our previous post we wrote that the House of Peter eventually developed into a church. It was a slow process that took four centuries. The first stage began in the second half, or perhaps even at the end of the first half of the first century, when the east courtyard transformed into a large room. While before the sky was its ceiling, this large space, measuring 5.80 by 6.45 m (21 by 19 feet) was now roofed over.  A central wooden beam placed on top of the walls divided the ceiling into two parts so that shorter beams could be used to span the large room. 

Several layers of plaster were found on the walls and the floor. Quite unusually, this is the only room in Capernaum that was plastered at this time, pointing to the use for non-domestic purposes. There was also a change in pottery. Beneath the plastered floor, the usual repertoire of domestic vessels, such as cooking pots, bowls and juglets, was found. Above the plastered floor, however, only storage jars and oil lamps were discovered.

Reconstruction of Peter’s House in the late first century.

Who worshiped in this sacred space? After Pentecost, the early Christian believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), and according to Acts 2:46, this was done “in their homes”, or “from house to house”. The archaeological evidence points to the use of this plastered room in Capernaum as a large house-church or domus ecclesia. This space is sometimes referred to as the ‘venerated room’. 

Until the 4th century, the population of Capernaum was entirely Jewish, and the Synagogue of Capernaum continued to operate as normal. The people that worshiped in the domus ecclesia were Jewish converts to Christianity, called minim by the rabbis: 

“In passages referring to the Christian period, minim usually indicates the Judæo-Christians, the Gnostics, and the Nazarenes, who often conversed with the Rabbis on the unity of God, creation, resurrection, and similar subjects (comp. Sanh. 39b). In some passages, indeed, it is used even for “Christian”; but it is possible that in such cases it is a substitution for the word “Noẓeri,” which was the usual term for “Christian.” 

In the late fourth century, at the initiative of Count Joseph of Tiberias, who was a friend of Constantine the Great, major changes took place in the development of Peter’s House. An approx. 120m long enclosure wall was built around Peter’s House, turning it into an almost square sacred compound, or insula sacra. Some of the first century rooms were destroyed to create more space around the domus ecclesia, giving the whole complex a stronger religious character.

There were two entrances in this enclosure wall, one in the north and one in the south. Interestingly, no entrance was made in the east wall to the Cardo street, the main north-south road on which the synagogue was located. Instead, a new east-west street (decumanus) was constructed north of the complex. Is this an indication that the two communities, Jewish and converts to Christianity, tried to remain separate? 

Reconstruction of Peter’s House in the fourth century.

The domus ecclesia room was also changed. A central arch was built in the room to support a higher ceiling, and the walls of this room were decorated with fresco. Various colours, such as red, pink, yellow, brown, green and white were used to create rectangular panels with alternating geometric and floral designs.

Broken fresco remains found in the domus ecclesia, photograph by Stanislao Loffreda.
Remains of fresco in the southwest corner of Peter’s House, photograph by Stanislao Loffreda.

In line with Jewish practice, no human or animal forms were portrayed. Inscriptions, or rather graffiti, in Greek, Latin, Syriac and Aramaic were scratched in the walls by apparently Christian pilgrims. Some of these graffiti mention monograms of Jesus and of Christ. The name of Peter is one of the many inscriptions scratched on the walls. 

Reconstruction the house church in Peter’s House, looking east.

Reconstruction the house church in Peter’s House, looking south.

On the northern side of the domus ecclesia, a sacristy was built where were usually sacred vessels and vestments were kept. On the east side an atrium was added which served as an entrance hall to the main room. This shows that in the fourth century the Jewish Christian population had increased substantially but were still living side by side with the Jewish people of Capernaum. All this was going to change in the fifth century when there was a huge influx of Gentile Christians … 

Capernaum

The town where Jesus chose to live

After Jerusalem, Capernaum is the site most visited by Christian pilgrims and tourists. Their main interest is to see the place where Jesus made his home after his words were rejected in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30).

A statue of Peter at the entrance of the Franciscan archaeological site of Capernaum

The fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah 9:2: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone”, required that Jesus would move from Nazareth to Capernaum. In the days of Isaiah that great light was Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, but this prophecy ultimately referred to the future Messiah. Matthew 4:13-17, confirms Isaiah’s prophecy as the main reason why Jesus made Capernaum his home: “And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”

Capernaum is located in a basalt region and the darkness mentioned in this Scripture is perhaps reflected by the dark basalt stones of which all the buildings were made. 

The houses of Capernaum, as seen in the foreground, were built of dark basalt stones. The building with the red domes in the background is the Greek Orthodox Church.

Jesus would, of course, have known beforehand that he couldn’t stay in Nazareth, for it was not located in Galilee of the Gentiles, nor on the Way of the Sea (aka the Via Maris). Bethsaida, for example, was by the sea, but not in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, and Chorazin (or Chorazim) was not by the sea. Only Capernaum met Isaiah’s criteria. Capernaum wraps around the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee and was located on Via Maris, the major trade route between Syria and Egypt. Jesus’ move from Nazareth to Capernaum was not a retreat into remoteness but a deliberate move into a more diverse region where his message and impact could have a wider and more receptive audience. It was nothing less than a move from the shadows to the spotlight. Capernaum was engaged with the world, via the International Highway and the Imperial Road. 

The Via Maris was the major trade route between Egypt in the south, and Syria with Mesopotamia in the northeast. Part of the Via Maris, namely the imperial road, ran west through Capernaum and then northwest and north along the west side of the Jordan River to the nearest crossing point where it joined the Via Maris again.

This major highway was used by many traders, who, apart from buying and selling, also exchanged items of news. By living on the Via Maris, Jesus could be assured that what he did and said would be carried far and wide to the larger audience for whom his message was intended. This explains how, according to Matthew 4:24, the fame of Jesus “spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains.” Jesus himself, as far as we know, never went to Syria, but the traders would have told the people they met all about him and the wonderful works he did.

This milestone from the time of Hadrian (2nd century AD) was found in Capernaum, indicating that this town was located on the Via Maris.

The inscription reads:

So, what do we know about Capernaum? Excavations by Franciscan archaeologists have revealed that Capernaum was established in the 2nd century BC and abandoned in the 11th century AD. We are going to examine what the major developments of Capernaum were and specially that of Peter’s House.

Capernaum was much larger than the excavated area and originally stretched for 300m along the shore and measures about 200m from north to south. The village was probably divided into 4 quarters by the main north-south running Cardo and east-west going Decumanus, with two sections of fishermen’s houses situated on either side of the southern part of the Cardo, close to the sea and harbour, while wealthier houses, such as the ones belonging to the centurion, the ruler of the synagogue and the tax collector, were probably located closer to the hills, away from the harbour and nearer the Decumanus.

The House of Peter where Jesus may have stayed was located west of the Cardo, in between the synagogue (see also here) and the harbour.

Peter’s House consisted of ten rooms built around three courtyards. Most of the domestic activities took place in the northern courtyard. Animals were kept in the courtyard to the east, and the southern courtyard, which was next to the harbour, was presumably used for fishing activities such as mending nets, selling fish and other activities. Later in the century, the east courtyard was used as a place for religious gatherings.

In this reconstruction drawing we imagine Peter’s boat moored alongside his house. In the courtyard we see two men under an awning mending their nets, and ask ourselves if Jesus perhaps did help Peter sometimes with the mending of the nets? Women are preparing food and baking it in an oven, and there was a stall where fish was sold. On the roof are two stands for the drying of fish.

Capernaum, Kfar Nachum in Hebrew, means the Village of Comfort. Jesus brought comfort to people that suffered from all sorts of diseases, to people that were politically and militarily oppressed by the Romans, to people that wanted to hear the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, but received no spiritual comfort from their Jewish leaders. 

Making Capernaum his home, was also a comfort for Jesus. The son of man had not “where to lay his head.” He was often like David in the wilderness, finding rest wherever he could. The story of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, who after she was healed “rose and ministered to them” gives the idea that when he was in Capernaum, he probably stayed in one of the rooms in Peter’s house. It shows that Jesus loved being with his friends. We all need friends and so did Jesus.

Over the next few centuries, the House of Peter developed into a church building, which will be the subject of a subsequent post.

Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah

A new presentation by Ritmeyer Archaeological Design

After the Temple Mount, the most popular images in our Image Library are those that depict Jerusalem in the Time of Nehemiah. Most probably, this is because so little is known about the layout of the city at that time. The archaeological data to support the record of Nehemiah, is thin on the ground or should we say, appears to be thin on the ground. In fact – if we look carefully- scattered archaeological remains of the entire circumvallation can be detected.

A reconstruction drawing of Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah

Chapter 3 of the Book of Nehemiah gives a detailed account of the massive repair work undertaken under Nehemiah’s guidance and the groups of people that volunteered to give this city a new span of life after the terrible disaster of the Babylonian destruction.

The Sheep Gate is the first feature mentioned and also the last in Nehemiah’s list of restored wall sections and gates. This gate had not been referred to previously in the Old Testament record, whereas other features mentioned by Nehemiah, such as the Towers of Meah and Hananeel were. Archaeological evidence for the Sheep Gate can be deduced from an underground tunnel in the northern wall of the city, called in Middot, one of the books of the Mishna, the earliest code of rabbinic law, the Tadi Gate. The model below shows how this part of the city would have looked in the time of Nehemiah:

In verse 13 of the chapter, the Valley Gate is mentioned. This is an element of Nehemiah’s wall of which we also have ancient remains, with J.W. Crowfoot discovering in 1924, a stretch of wall into which was built a gate which gave access to the City of David from the west. 

Its location in the western wall of the city is shown in the model:

After the completion of the work that took 52 days, two companies praising God walked over the eastern and western walls and met at the Sheep Gate. The Sheep Gate was the northern gate into the Temple Mount. It was so called as through this gate the animals for sacrifice were brought into the Temple Mount. It must have been a wonderful sight to see these two groups merging into one, united both in body and spirit to praise the Lord for his mercy and his goodness: 

We have combined all our information about the layout of Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah to create a new RAD CD – Volume 9 with 41 slides, called Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah. This presentation is profusely illustrated with photographs of a specially designed model, reconstruction drawings and photographs of archaeological remains. We use these illustrations in a verse by verse commentary on the third chapter of the Book of Nehemiah to follow the description of the restoration of Jerusalem’s walls.

The destruction of the site of Joshua’s altar on Mount Ebal (cont.)

Some good news

Aaron Lipkin communicated that Jewish and Christian volunteers have restored the destroyed wall of the Mount Ebal archaeological site of Joshua’s altar (photo: Aaron Lipkin).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to protect ancient sites:

“Concerning the terrible event at Mt. Ebal – I instructed today to conduct an investigation immediately to apprehend the people responsible (for the destruction) and to setup security in the site. We will safeguard our historical sites.”

Jesus’ parables of the Master of the House

A country manor in Israel

In the Gospels, Jesus speaks parables about “masters of the house”. In Matthew 20:1-16, he speaks of a master of the house who hired labourers to work in his vineyard, and in Matthew 21:33-39 of another master of the house who planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants. There are also references in Mark and Luke.

The Greek word for ‘master of the house’ is oikodespotes. Many lessons can be learnt from these parables which stresses the authority of the master of the house, but here we would like to examine the archaeological background of the parable. 

From the description in the Gospels, this was a wealthy landowner, who had vast tracts of lands with vineyards, oliveyards and agricultural fields for the growing of crops. No wonder he needed labourers to work in his fields at harvest time.  These landowners would have lived in large country mansions with outbuildings to store their crops and with installations, such as winepresses and olive presses, for post-harvest activities. 

Such an estate from the Second Temple period was found on Mount Carmel, in the grounds of Ramat haNadiv, the Rothschild Gardens near Zichron Ya’akov. It is called Mansur el-‘Aqeb in Arabic or Horvat ‘Aqav in Hebrew. Here, a fortified farmstead, surrounded by a wall and protected by a large tower, was discovered. It was L-shaped with the longest walls about 200 feet (60m) long and a surface of 0.7 acres (2,800m2). Inside the compound were the remains of extensive living quarters, storerooms, two winepresses, an oil press and a threshing floor. As the lower part of a mikveh (ritual bath) was found inside the building, the owner must have been Jewish. 

This drawing shows the remains of a Second Temple period manor house that were found in Ramat haNadiv on Mount Carmel. It consists of a fortified compound with a mansion, storerooms and agricultural installations. The presence of a mikveh indicates that the owner of this estate was Jewish.

The mansion is located at the highest point of the southwest cliff line of Mount Carmel, and overlooks the agricultural fields below. Caesarea by the Mediterranean Sea can be seen in the distance.

This reconstruction drawing of the Second Temple period country manor is based on the remains excavated in Ramat haNadiv on Mount Carmel. This site, called Horvat ‘Aqav in Hebrew, consists of a fortified compound with a mansion and agricultural installations. When Jesus in his parables spoke of a “master of the house”, he would have had the owner of estates like this in mind. 

After the destruction of this complex in 70AD, a farmstead was built over the remains of the 1st century estate in the Byzantine period, confirming the importance of the location and ground of this agricultural estate.

In the late 1980’s, I was asked by the excavator, Yizhar Hirschfeld, to restore a circular Byzantine winepress.

The restored circular winepress (left) with a new sign.

This was followed up by a request to restore the whole site and design explanatory signs.

Here am I (r) discussing the restoration of the Byzantine farmhouse with Eli (l) the construction engineer.

Eventually these black and white signs faded and the metal frames rusted. A few years ago, I was asked to design new signs which were to be done in color.

This new sign is placed at the entrance to the archaeological site, and has general information in English, Arabic and Hebrew.

When the pandemic is over, God willing, tourists and visitors will again be able to visit this fascinating archaeological site. We have found “reading in the ruins” one of the most effective ways to bring an ancient site to life. Reading the parables that Jesus spoke about landowners or masters of the house in this particular farmstead, paints a vivid picture in the mind and illuminates the cultural and material background.

The Synagogue of Capernaum

A reconstruction of the synagogue’s interior

Apart from the first century Synagogue of Capernaum, the only other known synagogues from this period were found at Masada, Herodium, Gamla and Magdala. In Jerusalem, the  Theodotus Synagogue inscription, dating from the same time, was found, but no remains of the actual synagogue have been found. 

The inscription reads: “Theodotos son of Vettenus, priest and head of the synagogue (archisynagōgos), son of a head of the synagogue, and grandson of a head of the synagogue, built the synagogue (synagogē) for the reading of the law [nómou] and for the teaching of the commandments [didachín entolón], as well as the guest room, the chambers, and the water fittings as an inn for those in need from abroad, the synagogue which his fathers founded with the elders and Simonides.” (Wikipedia, photo: Andrey Zeigarnik)

We know that the Synagogue of Capernaum served as a place for the reading of the Torah and its study. But, what did the interior of the Capernaum Synagogue look like and how did the synagogue operate? In Luke 4:16-22 we read that in the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus first stood up to read, and then sat down to teach. The question is, where did the reader stand and where did the teacher sit?

The 1st century Synagogue of Capernaum where Jesus preached. In the foreground we see the ruler of the synagogue bringing the Torah Scrolls in a chest on wheels, called the Ark of the Covenant.

In a previous post, we have seen that in Capernaum the Torah Scrolls were transported in a wheeled carriage from the home of the ruler of the synagogue (archisynagogas) to the synagogue. These scrolls were apparently kept in the home of the ruler of the synagogue for security reasons.

The Torah Scrolls were transported in a wheeled carriage from the home of the ruler of the synagogue to the synagogue in Capernaum. The carriage has a panelled double door, Ionic pillars on the side as in a Greek temple and a convex roof.

The Law of Moses was first read, and then expounded on from Moses’ Seat, for in Acts 15:21, it says “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath”.  And in Matt. 23:2,3 Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do”.

We have tried to put this information in a new reconstruction drawing of the interior of the Capernaum Synagogue. Opposite the entrance in the east wall, we see people sitting on stone benches, placed along three sides of the room. 

In the centre of the hall is a reading platform, consisting of a decorated square stone on which a wooden lectern stands. This reconstruction is based on a similar stone that was found in the nearby synagogue of Magdala. 

The reader read from the scroll that was brought into the synagogue in the wheeled carriage, which was placed at the left side of the entrance. The ruler of the synagogue took the relevant scroll out of the carriage and placed it on the lectern. On the right side of the entrance is a stone seat, called Moses’ Seat, where the teacher sat. Such seats have been found in the synagogues of Chorazin and Tiberias. 

Jewish worship consisted initially mainly of prayers and the reading of the Law. This worship later developed into a full-blown service. The order of the services in the synagogue was as follows: 
(1) Reciting the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41)
(2) Prayer 
(3) Reading the law
(4) Reading the prophets
(5) Discourse by anyone who desired to speak (Acts 13:15)
(6) the Benediction.

The order of the traditional Christian service is based on this Jewish one.

Apart from teaching in the synagogue, Jesus also performed miracles there, such as the healing of the man was there whose right hand was withered (Luke 6:6 – 10, Matthew 12:9 – 13, Mark 3:1 – 5), the man with an unclean (demonic) spirit (Mark 1:21-25), and perhaps also the woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up (Luke 13:11-14). Jesus did these signs, not only to prove that he was the promised Messiah, but also to show the deeper significance of the Sabbath day as an example of the promised Sabbath rest for the people of God (Heb. 4:8-10).