Beit Alpha (or Beth Alpha) synagogue was built in the 6th-century AD on the foothills of the Gilboa Mountains, in the Beit She‘an Valley, Israel. In 1928, members of a nearby kibbutz came across the synagogue remains while preparing fields for irrigation. Excavation began immediately, led by Eleazar Sukenik of the Hebrew University.
Later in 1962, further excavations uncovered residential structures alongside the synagogue. This shows that the synagogue was once at the heart of a Byzantine-era Jewish village. Today the remains of the 1,500-year-old synagogue are preserved within the Bet Alfa Synagogue National Park. The highlight of the ancient synagogue is a magnificent floor mosaic. It is unique in its size and condition as well as its motifs and images.
What Would the Beit Alpha Synagogue Have Looked Like?
About 1,500-years ago, the synagogue would have had two stories, a vestibule and a large courtyard reaching from the street to the synagogue entrance in the western wall. The courtyard was paved with mosaics in geometric designs. The upper level was probably a women’s gallery. Female worshipers could look down on the male worshipers, and the prayer service below. Two rows of stone pillars divided the lower level to create two side aisles and a central nave.
The congregation faced the apse at the southwestern end of the hall, looking toward Jerusalem as they prayed. Stone benches lined the walls on both sides. The Torah Ark, holding the Torah scrolls, would have stood in the apse. During prayer services, they took the scrolls from the Ark, and the leader of the congregation would stand on a raised platform, or bimah to give the Torah reading. The total area of the synagogue would have been 20m X 14m, and the walls were of plastered stone.
Archaeological Finds at Beit Alpha Synagogue
Among the discoveries at the Beit Alpha site was a cache of 36 Byzantine-era coins found in a hole in the synagogue's floor. Above the northern entrance were inscriptions in Aramaic and Greek. The Aramaic inscription tells us the synagogue was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinus and construction was paid for by donations.
The Greek inscription honors the artisans who worked on the synagogue. Flanking the inscriptions are stone carvings of a lion and a buffalo. These were the protective symbols of the synagogue. The most famous feature of this ancient synagogue, and the real reason people come to Beit Alpha, is the floor mosaic.
The Mosaics of Beit Alpha Synagogue
The mosaic has three panels, each with a different theme from the Bible. The northern panel features the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22, 1-18). All of the figures are labeled with their Hebrew names. The magnificence central panel depicts a Jewish version of the zodiac wheel. The twelve zodiac signs form the outer circle while an image of Helios the Greco-Roman sun god fills the inner circle. Female images in the four corners represent the seasons.
There has been much debate about how early Judaism adopted certain aspects of Greco-Roman mysticism and astral religion, such as the zodiac wheel. The southern panel of the floor mosaic features a decorated Torah Shrine at the center surrounded by various ritualistic symbols and religious objects. Flanking the Torah Shrine are candelabras (Menorot) and framing the mosaic panel are two pulled back curtains. The beauty and attention to detail make the Beit Alpha Synagogue mosaic a rare archaeological find, and one worth seeing.