Perfect Lioness Carving From 1,500 Years Ago Discovered in a Pile of Dirt in Israel

Basalt carving may have graced an ancient synagogue in Bethsaida, archaeologists surmise: It's like other synagogue decorations found in the area

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Lioness relief in basalt found in putative site of Bethsaida. She weighs about 600 kilos.
Lioness relief in basalt found in putative site of Bethsaida. She weighs about 600 kilos.Credit: Dr. Mordechai Aviam
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

"Moreover take thou up a lamentation for the princess of Israel, And say, What is thy mother? A lioness: she lay down among lions, she nourished her whelps among young lions." Ezekiel 19:1-2

Some people wouldn't notice an elephant statue in the room. Others glance at a pile of dirt and see ancient carvings of cats. That's how archaeologists found a relief of a lioness carved on a basalt rock weighing 600 kilograms (1320 pounds) at el-Araj, which may or may not have been the site of Bethsaida, in the Galilee.

The carving probably dates to around the 4th to 6th century C.E., says Dr. Mordechai Aviam, director of excavations at the Kinneret Academic College in the Galilee.

The relief of the lioness is quite well preserved, Aviam told Haaretz. Her head was carved in three dimensions and the body in two, as a high relief.

Her image is complete, with short mane, fangs, hanging tongue, and even a tail dangling down her legs. The rock was carefully lifted by crane and taken to a safe place, he says.

Lioness? Mane? Asked how he could tell it's a female, not a male, Aviam explained that when the artists of yore made a lion, they depicted its sex organs. As this one lacks male unmentionables, it is, apparently, a lioness. Also, its mane is small.

Would she have been carved by early Christians, by Jews, or by somebody else entirely, such as pagans? Aviam qualifies that the discovery was just made days ago, and bears more study. But his initial theory is that her origin is Jewish.

For one thing, during excavations at el-Araj in the summer of 2016, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a Second Temple-era Jewish village. For another, Judaism is rich in lion symbolism.

Thirdly, the ancient synagogues of the Golan and Galilee often sported lion art, while the Byzantine churches did not, Aviam explains.

"This relief looks very much like other statues of lions and lionesses discovered in synagogues in the Golan Heights," he says.

On the other hand, since the carving was found at a site Aviam believes to have been Julias, a Roman-era town, it could have graced a non-Jewish public building. Various items of art discovered around the region indicate grand construction in the area during the 4th to 6th C.E., though again, Aviam notes: there is no sign that the non-Jewish construction involved lion art. Synagogues on the other hand definitely did.

"The synagogues in the Galilee had lions too," Aviam told Haaretz, though those cats were usually carved out of soft chalky rock and dated more to the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E.

Golan construction and art were characterized by basalt, a much harder and more durable volcanic rock. "All the synagogues there are full of basalt reliefs, of eagles and lions, for instance," Aviam says.

Seeking Julias

The discovery of the lioness relief was practically accidental. The rock was noticed in a pile of dirt and modern debris that had been removed by tractor at El-Araj, a site that Aviam and many others think was Julias, an expansion by Rome of the biblical town of Bethsaida. The archaeologists thought they saw something in a rock in the pile, and called in Aviam, who hastened to the site.

Since when do archaeologists use tractors to move debris? "We had to vacate the rubble of modern building," Aviam explains, adding that especially since finding the lioness rock, they mean to sift that dirt very carefully.

The site is being excavated by people from the Kinneret Academic College, Kinneret Archaeology Institute and Nyack College.

Bethsaida had been a Jewish fishing village by the Sea of Galilee. The Jewish monarch King Philip Herod, son of the great vassal King Herod, built the polis of Julias either on Bethsaida or by expanding Bethsaida, according to the Jewish historian Flavius.

It bears mention that many disagree the site of El-Araj was Bethsaida, site of where some of Jesus' miracles took place according to tradition and birthplace of the apostles Philip, Peter and Andrew. Rami Arav, a professor religion and philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and who is involved in local excavations, touts e-Tell, a site near El-Araj, as the true site of Bethsaida. Others counter that e-Tell is too far from the shores of the Sea of Galilee to have been a fishing village.



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