The fifth century synagogue

The fifth century synagogue

The archaeological excavations carried out over the past forty years have shown that the synagogue, as it has come down to us, was built in the fifth century AD. The more than 20,000 coins found to date beneath the floor of the synagogue, perhaps donated by the faithful over time as a votive offering, along with pottery, indicate that the construction of the synagogue was completed in the last quarter of the fifth century.

Raised above an artificial platform, the synagogue built in Capernaum in the fifth century is the most ornate synagogue so far uncovered in Galilee.
In marked contrast to the black basalt used for building local houses, the synagogue was constructed in late Roman form and decorative style using white limestone. It has been partly reconstructed by Franciscan architects making use of the original blocks that were scattered over the site.

Segments of the large archway and tympanum that originally crowned the facade of the prayer room have been reconstructed on the ground in an area lying behind the synagogue; the sculpted lintels that decorated the entrances to the synagogue and the courtyard have, on the other hand, been replaced in situ.

La sala di preghiera ha pianta rettangolare (23x17,28 m) ed è pavimentata in lastre di calcare bianco; è suddivisa in una grande navata centrale circondata su tre lati da sedici colonne ritmate al di sopra di un basso stilobate che contorna la sala. I piedistalli sorreggono le lisce colonne di calcare con base attica, coronate da capitelli di stile corinzio. Secondo la ricostruzione di p. Orfali e di Watzinger, il colonnato sorreggeva un architrave sul quale poggiavano le colonne dell’ordine superiore, terminato da un fregio e da una cornice riccamente decorati. Le due scale esterne retrostanti la sala, che in parte ancora si conservano, sarebbero dunque servite come accessi alla galleria superiore, il matroneo.

The prayer room had a regular floor plan (23 x 17.28 m) and was paved with slabs of white limestone; it was divided into a large central nave surrounded on three sides by sixteen rhythmically-spaced columns resting on a low stylobate that skirted the room. Pedestals supported the smooth limestone columns with Attic bases that were crowned by Corinthian capitals. According to the reconstruction by Fathers Orfali and Watzinger, the columns supported an architrave, on which the columns of the upper gallery rested, that terminated in a frieze and a richly-decorated cornice. The two external staircases at the back of the room, which are still partly preserved, would have served to give access to the women’s gallery on the upper level.

One column capital, preserved today in the exhibition in the park, has three carved Jewish symbols : a menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum, a shofar, a trumpet made from a ram’s horn used during religious ceremonies, and a mahta (incense shovel).
The columns with matched pedestals located at the two corners to the north are heart-shaped, and are similar to others found in various sites in the Middle East.

Two inscriptions can be seen on the two central columns at the front of the entrance: the one of the right is in Greek and was commissioned by two representatives of the community that built the synagogue: “Herod (the son) of Monimos and his son Justus together with their children erected this column.”
On the left-hand column is an inscription commissioned by the Department of Antiquities in pious memory of Father Gaudenzio Orfali, who carried out investigations at the synagogue in 1921 and initiated its reconstruction.
Another inscription in Aramaic can be found in the area and belongs to the synagogue. The inscription reads: “Alphaeus, the son of Zebedee, the son of John, made this column. May it be for him a blessing.”

Two rows of stone benches are set along the east and west walls of the room: they were intended to be used by the men of the community during religious functions, while the women went upstairs to the women’s gallery.
The rolls of the law, the Torah, were read during religious meetings, and otherwise were kept in the Aron Kadesh (“holy ark”, or chest) to the south on the principal wall, turned to face Jerusalem. In this regard, traces of two tabernacles can be seen on each side of the principal entrance; they were later replaced by a more elegant structure which occupied the entire width of the central nave.


The white synagogue from the Byzantine era