Mosaics Depicting Noah’s Ark, Splitting of the Red Sea Uncovered at Ancient Synagogue

“And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” Exodus 14:21 (The Israel Bible™)

Mosaics depicting two of the Bible’s most famous stories were uncovered amid excavations at an ancient synagogue in Israel’s Lower Galilee, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) announced last week.

Now in its sixth summer, the excavation, which is taking place at the 5th century CE Huqoq Synagogue in Northern Israel, has revealed mosaic artwork depicting Noah’s Ark (Genesis 6) and the splitting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14).

“The panel with Noah’s Ark depicts an ark and pairs of animals, including elephants, leopards, donkeys, snakes, bears, lions, ostriches, camels, sheep and goats,” the university said in a statement.

Donkeys in Noah's ark mosaic from Huqoq Synagogue. (Photo: Jim Haberman/UNC Chapel Hill).
Donkeys in Noah’s ark mosaic from Huqoq Synagogue. (Photo: Jim Haberman/UNC Chapel Hill).

“The scene of the parting of the Red Sea shows Pharaoh’s soldiers being swallowed by large fish, surrounded by overturned chariots with horses and chariot drivers,” UNC’s statement described.

Both the Noah’s Ark and Splitting of the Red Sea mosaics decorated the floor of the synagogue’s nave (center of the hall).

The dig is being carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and UNC. In the past several years, students and staff working at the site have unearthed beautiful floor mosaics featuring both people and animals which have never been seen before in Jewish houses of worship.

“These scenes are very rare in ancient synagogues,” Jodi Magness, the UNC professor who has headed the dig, explained. “The only other examples that have been found are at Gerasa/Jerash in Jordan and Mopsuestia/Misis in Turkey (Noah’s Ark), and at Khirbet Wadi Hamam in Israel and Dura Europos in Syria (the parting of the Red Sea).” Working with Magness is Assistant Director Shua Kisilevitz of the IAA.

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The first mosaics were discovered at the late Roman-era synagogue in 2012 and excavations have continued every summer since. In 2012, a mosaic depicting the story of Samson and the foxes (Judges 15:4) was uncovered in the building’s east aisle. In the summer of 2013, an adjacent mosaic showing Samson carrying the gate of Gaza (Judges 16:3) on his shoulders was uncovered.

A mosaic depicting the first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue was discovered and excavated in the synagogue’s east aisle in 2013 and 2014, according to the UNC statement. The scene is thought to be that of the “legendary meeting” between Alexander the Great and the Jewish Kohen (high priest).

Then, in 2015, a mosaic panel containing a “Hebrew inscription surrounded by human figures, animals and mythological creatures including putti (cupids),” UNC divulged. The 2015 discovery was located close to that of the scene depicting Alexander the Great.

“This is by far the most extensive series of biblical stories ever found decorating the mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue,” said Magness. “The arrangement of the mosaics in panels on the floor brings to mind the synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria, where an array of biblical stories is painted in panels on the walls.”

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, researchers said, and the excavated areas have since been backfilled.

The team plans to continue with their excavations at Huqoq in 2017.