Golan Synagogue: Majduliya

Archaeologist Michael Osband explains his findings at Majduliya in the Golan
Archaeologist Michael Osband explains his findings at Majduliya in the Golan

About thirty-five of us followed the archaeologist down a dirt track across the high plain of the Golan. In every direction, all we saw were dried yellow grasses and an occasional purple thorn flower. Here and there, a black basalt rock stuck up through the vegetation. In the distance, off to the northwest, the faint blue gray mountains reached up into the bright blue sky.

Mechael Osband PhD, the archeologist who had discovered this site, reached the seven wire cow fence. He opened the gate by lifting one post and peeling the wire back to let us through, asking one of the men in our group to close it after everyone had walked through. He was not about to let any cow wander through his site.

From a short distance you can't tell that this is the site of an ancient Golan synagogue
From a short distance you can’t tell that this is the site of an ancient synagogue in the Golan. Sign reads: Danger. Entrance forbidden. Archaeological excavation.

My class on the development of prayer and the synagogue carefully walked down the track. Neither Mechael (pronounced Mee-chah-el) nor Shulie Mishkin, our guide, felt the need to make sure we didn’t wander off on our own; the thorns on either side of the path were too numerous. They grabbed at our skirts and slacks. My classmates wearing sandals complained that they should have worn sneakers.

We passed through another gate in a wire fence, all but invisible a few feet away, and saw black earth, some black rocks, and lines of white sandbags. This was Majduliya, Mechael’s first archeological dig of his own, one he had discovered about a year and a half ago during his post-doctoral research. He was now preparing for the new season.

This part of the Golan was known as an area of Jewish settlement in Second Temple times. Not far from Majduliya are the remains of Gamla, a Jewish stronghold during the Great Revolt, which was captured and destroyed by the Romans in 68 C.E. Many other towns in the Golan are mentioned in the Talmud.

Thus, it has long been of interest to archaeologists. Gottlieb Schumacher, the German-American engineer who surveyed the route for the Damascus-Haifa railway and excavated at Megiddo, came by here in the late 19th century. In his survey of the Golan plateau, he mentioned Majduliya, saying that its original name is not known. He did find four ancient olive presses, but the area was already known to be an olive growing area. He concluded that there was “nothing of interest here.” Little did he know.

Mechael discovered the site while conducting a survey of Roman pottery in the Golan. A pool of water in the middle of the field attracted his attention. Then he found something man made, some dressed stones in a row—a portion of a wall. Inside wall or outside wall? That was yet to be determined.

When you find a wall, he told us, the first thing you want to do is find a corner. That will tell you the orientation of the building. Starting from the corner, you can then look for other corners and determine the size of the structure in question. Before he walked over to the first corner, he pointed out indentations in two stones, evidence that two doors had led into the structure.

He walked along the northern wall over to the eastern corner, pointing out benches built into all four walls. From the size of the building— about 50 by 75 feet—and the presence of the benches, he determined that this was obviously some type of public building. But he still needed to determine the ethnicity of the village in which it was found.

The presence of a mikveh is the generally accepted sign of a Jewish town. In most of the places where synagogues have been found, at least one mikveh has been found nearby. But almost no mikvaot have been found in the Golan. This site isn’t completely excavated yet, so the lack of a mikveh is not significant. However, the excavators also look for artifacts that are associated solely with Jewish habitation—stone vessels.

The Jews in earlier periods observed laws of ritual purity and impurity strictly. The advantage of vessels, such as cups and bowls, made of stone is that stone cannot contract impurity. The presence of stone vessels means that Jews lived in the area. Although stone vessels have been found at other sites in the Golan, none have been found yet at Majduliya. Finding them would show the archaeologists that this was a Jewish village, so they will continue to look for stone cups and dishes this season. Finding such vessels will confirm that building must have been a synagogue because the only large buildings found in Jewish villages of the Roman period were synagogues.

But more evidence was waiting to be discovered.

He turned the corner and walked along the southern wall of the building, the wall closest to Jerusalem, the direction of Jewish prayer. About halfway along its length, he knelt down, and leaning over, moved a few sandbags. “These things were found in the last week.”

During the month-long active archaeological season in midsummer, dozens of students and other volunteers will be busy here. They will carefully dig with small shovels and clear away soil and debris with brushes. But now, four weeks before the volunteers arrive, Mechael is the only one at the site. He’s getting ready for the busy time. Nonetheless, the lure of possible discovery is too strong. It may not be the season yet, but as he examines the site to see what has changed during the rainy winter, he is not averse to uncovering something that looks promising. Which is what he did on this southern side of the building.

As he hunched over, he pointed out that the area he was leaning over was lower than the rest of the building. A lower area on the side closest to Jerusalem is typical of synagogue architecture of the Roman period.

The sandbags he moved had been protecting two objects, which he now held up. They were red and looked like pottery. “Anyone know what these are?” he asked.

Most of us shook our heads. One brave person hazarded a guess. “Roof tiles?”

Mechael smiled. “These are tiles from the roof. Tiles came with the legions; they show that the synagogue was built in Roman times.”

From seeing excavations of earlier towns, I knew that roofs had been constructed either from stone beams or wood and mud. When the Romans ruled the land, they needed to provide year-round work for the soldiers. In the winter, the cold rainy period when fighting ceased, the legions were put to work making tiles. When digging the foundation for the Binyanei HaUma, the international convention center in Jerusalem, builders had discovered the Tenth Legion’s tile factory.

Carefully placing the roof tiles on the ground, Mechael moved two more sandbags and lifted the corner of a rubber mat. He peeled it back, and then brushed some of the dirt from the surface. Small white spots appeared through

When the black earth was removed, some white mosaic tiles were found.
When the black earth was removed, some white mosaic tiles were found.

the black dirt. He brushed some more dirt away and sat back on his heels, a pleased expression on his face.

The white spots looked to be the size of the small tiles used to make mosaics. And indeed that is what they are. Most Roman period synagogues found so far have mosaic floors, and Mechael believes he has found one here as well. Only time, and painstaking removal of the dirt covering the floor, will confirm his belief, or tell him he jumped to an erroneous conclusion based on too little evidence.

As he discussed the possibility that he has found a mosaic floor, he mentioned that finding it cleared up another mystery. Now that it is summer, the whole area is dry, but when he first saw this field in the winter, a pool of water filled this area. “Of course,” he said, as if the idea had just then occurred to him. “There’s no drainage here–there’s a floor under it!”

A small village once stood here, with a synagogue near its edge. The whole site is about seven and a half acres, and only a small part of it has been excavated–a few houses and the synagogue. Much work remains to be done, and will no doubt take several years to accomplish.

Mechael Osband is enthusiastic about the prospect of uncovering all of it.

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