Image: Samaritan Synagogue
Courtesy of the Israel Antiquiti
updated 9/20/2010 5:41:30 PM ET 2010-09-20T21:41:30

Israeli archaeologists have uncovered the ruins of a 1,500-year-old synagogue near the city of Beit Shean in the Jordan Valley, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Monday.

The remains consist of a five- by eight-meter (16- by 26-foot) rectangular prayer hall whose walls featured five rectangular recesses built into them. Most likely, they housed wooden benches.

On the floor, the archaeologists found a colorful mosaic, decorated with a geometric pattern. In the center, a Greek inscription proclaimed: “This is the temple.”

According to Leah Di Segni, the scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who translated the inscription, the plan of the building, the orientation and the content of the inscription are in keeping with a Samaritan synagogue.

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Indeed, the prayer hall faced southwest toward Mount Gerizim, a mound sacred to the Samaritans, people believed to have originated in the ancient northern kingdom of Israel.

Mentioned by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the Samaritans, whose religion shares many similarities with Judaism, numbered around a million in the late Roman Empire.

Under the leadership of the high priest Baba Rabbah, they were granted national sovereignty. At the end of the reign of the Emperor Justinian in 529, however, following an unsuccessful revolt, they ceased to exist as a nation.

Today, the Samaritans are the smallest religio-ethnic group in existence.

Image: Ancient Samaritan Synagogue Unearthed In Israel
Courtesy of the Israel Antiquiti

Located about five kilometers (three miles) west of the River Jordan and about 25 kilometers (16 miles) south of the Sea of Galilee, Beit Shean was an important Samaritan center during the Byzantine Period (fourth century).

Next to the synagogue — the third found in the area — the archaeologists unearthed further evidence for a Samaritan community.

The dig revealed the remains of a farmstead which extended over an area of more than 1,500 square meters (16,145 square feet).

The farmhouse consisted of a central courtyard which was surrounded by storerooms, while the southern part boasted a residence and a guest hall.

According to Walid Atrash and Yakov Harel, who are directing the excavation, the synagogue and farmstead were built at the end of the fifth century. They continued to exist until the eve of the Muslim conquest in 634, when the Samaritans abandoned the complex.

“The synagogue that is currently being revealed played an important part in the lives of the farmers who inhabited the surrounding region, and it served as a center of the spiritual, religious and social life there,” the archaeologists said in a statement.

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