Archaeologists Find First Sign of Jews in Ancient Abila, Jordan

A menorah carving found in a church provides the first physical evidence of a long-assumed Jewish population in the Hellenistic city.

The seven-branched menorah with tripod base, inscribed on a reused stone in the basilica: it is the first solid evidence of a Jewish population in Abila. The basilica dates from roughly the 6th or 7th century CE, which means the Jewish presence in the city had to have been earlier.
The seven-branched menorah with tripod base, inscribed on a reused stone in the basilica. Derrick Heldenbrand

A menorah carved on a stone block, found in a 1400-year-old Byzantine church in Abila, Jordan is the first tangible evidence of a Jewish presence in the ancient Hellenistic city that been assumed, but not proven.

There is ample evidence of Jewish presence in the region, such as an ancient synagogue discovered in nearby Jerash. But in 36 years of excavations at Tell al-Abila, also known as Selukeia, no traces of Jews living in the Roman trading hub had been found before.

The depiction of the seven-branched menorah, with a branching three-legged base, was found on a stone in the second tier of a wall, near the floor, while excavating a Byzantine church from the 6th or 7th century CE.

“This is the first physical evidence of a Jewish presence at Abila, and holds great promise that further discoveries will give more evidence in this direction,” Dave Vila, head of the excavations, told Haaretz.

The stone block with the menorah carving was almost certainly not in situ, but was repurposed from another structure, probably a synagogue. Since it was not found in situ, meaning in its original site, the date of the menorah cannot be ascertained. But it has to predate the construction of the church, which is about 1300 to 1400 years old.

Search for the synagogue from which it may have come is underway. If none is found, that doesn't mean there wasn't one. Reuse of one block could indicate that all the material in the Jewish buildings of Abila was reused over the centuries.

Aerial view of Tell al-Abila, showing columns in the remains of a basilica.
Simon Noel Rutter / Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East

The excavation of the church in which the menorah was discovered found evidence of use going back thousands of years, from a Roman bath complex underneath it, on top of which an earlier Byzantine church was built that has been  discovered below the current one, to later Muslim occupation.

“There is a strong possibility that the church was used as a place of Muslim prayer – a musalla – before the earthquake that destroyed the whole structure in 749CE,” Vila told Haaretz. in fact, the quake destroyed Abila entirely. (The same happened to ancient Beit She'an.)

Elsewhere in Tell al-Abila, the archaeologists uncovered a Byzantine marketplace , and a Muslim grave from the Crusader Era, dating to around the 11th century CE. The burial is currently being studied.

Abila of the Decapolis

The ancient ruins of Abila (from the Semitic word "abel" for watercourse) lie on the modern border of Jordan and Syria, near the Yarmuk River.  

According to some sources, at least, Abila was one of the towns that made out the federation known as the Decapolis, a league of cities that existed around the second century C.E.

The word Decapolis comes from the Greek deka, meaning “ten,” and polis, “city”, but actually Ptolemy for example names 18 cities as in the “Decapolis,” which may indicate that the name came to be used in a general way, and that the number of cities varied. Which cities were the original ten is not clear. Some scholars would put Abila, listed by Ptolemy, in place of Raphana as among them.

One version of the ancient Decapolis.
Nichalp, Wikimedia Commons

The term “Decapolis” first appears in the writings of Josephus and Pliny the Elder (both of the first century C.E.), and in Christian Greek scriptures. While acknowledging that some difference of opinion already existed, Pliny listed the following cities as among the original ten: Damascus, Philadelphia, Raphana, Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippo (Hippos), Dion, Pella, Galasa (Gerasa), and Canatha.

It seems evident, at any rate, that the Decapolis region did not have precisely defined boundaries, and that the authority of the Decapolis cities did not embrace all the intervening territory, but applied only to the district of each particular city.

In any case, the common purpose of the Decapolis, which was located south of the Sea of Galilee, was to protect mutual trade interests and also to defend against anti-Hellenistic forces within Palestine and aggressive nomadic tribes in the desert regions. The only Decapolis city west of the Jordan River, in today's Israel, is Beit She'an, known in antiquity as Scythopolis.

Beit She’an
Michael Jacobson

The menorah

Depictions of the Jewish menorah with a tripod base were popular in late antique Judaism (fourth–sixth centuries C.E.). This can be seen clearly on the mosaic floors of several synagogues, for instance in Hammath Tiberias, Beit She'an, Beit Alpha and Nirim, not to mention on inscribed plaques, oil lamps and even a tiny gold ring from the fifth century C.E.

One of the oldest symbols in Judaism, the menorah has remained an enduring symbol of the Jewish people for millennia. The first known menorah is believed to have been made for the Tabernacle and is mentioned in the Bible (Exodus 25:31-40, 37:17-24).

Later, King Solomon had ten golden lampstands and a number of silver lampstands made for Temple use. A seven-branched candelabra stood in the Second Temple in Jerusalem and was brought by the Titus to Rome as spoils of war after the conquest of Jerusalem in year 70 CE.  And in the ultimate testimony to the symbolism of the menorah as representative of the Jewish people, the Arch of Titus in Rome depicts Roman soldiers carrying booty from the Second Temple on their shoulders – prominently including that seven-branched candelabra.

Ariel view of the north area of Tell al-Abila, showing the remains of the Byzantine church.
David Leslie Kennedy / Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East