Ancient Mosaics Conjure Up Lavish Meals Enjoyed in Israel's Roman-era Galilee

The stories told by mosaic depicting boars, grape-eating hares and Greek gods

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The boar mosaic at the Hanita Stockade and Tower Museum. One imagines ancient residents using the animal to find tasty mushrooms.
The boar mosaic at the Hanita Stockade and Tower Museum. One imagines ancient residents using the animal to find tasty mushrooms. Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Of late, the image of a wild boar that I first saw a few months ago at the Stockade and Tower Museum at Kibbutz Hanita has snuck back into my thoughts. Most of the rather old-fashioned exhibition in the small museum way up north is devoted to the story of modern Jews and their land settlement enterprise – including the so-called stockade and tower communities – in Mandatory Palestine. But for my money, the museum’s most interesting room is the one displaying evidence of human habitation on the hills up there in different periods: hunter-gatherers who honed stones into knives (more than 10 thousand years ago); Phoenician inscriptions (from approximately 3,000 B.C.E.) found, together with other objects, in the burial caves in the nearby forest; and the crowning glory, three mosaics, among them one of a boar, created from thousands of brown-black-bluish stones, that were once part of the floor of the fifth-century C.E. Byzantine church that stood here.

Why did the boar keep insinuating itself into my thoughts? Perhaps for no other reason than the naive beauty of the design of the wild creature standing next to a cypress-like tree; perhaps because of the wondrous and hypnotic jigsaw puzzle of tiny stones that make up the work; or perhaps because boars, an integral element of life in the region, are so rare in Israeli culture, due to the Jewish-Muslim repulsion from the animal that became a symbol of impurity.

Around the neck of “my” boar – this isn’t the first piece of art over which I’ve claimed an imagined affectionate ownership – the unknown artist wrapped a handsome leash, which places the animal in thrall to masters not seen in the picture and also acts as a muzzle.

A mosaic at the Hanita Stockade and Tower Museum.Credit: Dan Perez

Archaeologists and art historians who are dozens of times more knowledgeable and erudite than I, describe the animals that appear in Byzantine mosaics – among others the grape-gorging hare that was discovered at the same site – as symbols of salvation and spiritual redemption. But I, who am guided through the world by the growlings of my stomach, prefer to see the leashed and muzzled boar as proof of the fact that even in ancient times the people of the region were aided by these animals’ acute senses to locate the tasty mushrooms concealed in the belly of the earth hard by the roots of trees and plants, like present-day truffle hogs and dogs.

In the breaks between the two latest lockdowns, I too went out to gather mushrooms with friends – this winter has yielded an abundance of mushrooms that I don’t remember seeing for years – which is how I found myself (when the museum was open, subject to the coronavirus restrictions) gazing long and hard at the boar on the forgotten Byzantine mosaic.

Amid the impossible jumble of documents, tools and objects exhibited in the adjacent galleries (“We already have a plan for a new exhibition design,” curator Miri Elzon, says, “but it takes time to scrounge budgets, and do everything alone”), evidence can be found not only of art, walls, towers and weapons, but of the day-to-day life of the Jewish pioneers of the last century.

A mosaic at the Hanita Stockade and Tower Museum. Credit: Dan Perez
A vessel from the Mamluk Period at the Hanita Stockade and Tower Museum.Credit: Dan Perez

One of the most charming of the historical documents on display, even if it’s tricky to locate it among the hundreds hanging on the walls, describes the attempts made by the early members of Hanita, who had trouble working the land on the nearby mountainside, to find a way to support themselves by way of their natural surroundings.

During the 1940s (Hanita was founded in 1938), the kibbutzniks began to gather mushrooms and sold them to the (now-giant) food concern Tnuva; tried to distill essential oils from za’atar (wild hyssop), sage and wormwood with the aid of a “pioneering” machine provided by the Jewish Agency; and dried bay leaves plucked from the forest. The principal buyers of the latter, records indicate, were the Havshush brothers.

The Havshush family, descended from a long line of spice merchants from Sanaa, in Yemen, opened a spice shop in Tel Aviv in the 1920s and still have a store in the city’s Levinsky Market. And they still sell dried bay leaves of superb quality, nowadays mostly imported, for the most part from Europe and the Balkans, they say – even though laurel remains one of the most common species in the typical Mediterranean brushland. (And why in fact don’t we grow them in our backyards and gardens, and enjoy them fresh instead of dried and imported?)

A mosaic at Dionysus House in Zippori.Credit: Dan Perez
A detail of the floor at Dionysus House in Zippori.Credit: Dan Perez

As we know, the attempts to live from nature’s bounty didn’t completely succeed. The agriculture and nutrition that are identified with this new type of Jewish settlement tend to be industrial and intensive. The advent of imports in the 1970s and 1980s transformed the face of agriculture and pushed certain crops into certain developing countries with cheaper workforces. But even so, it’s nice to think that current back-to-nature trends and small-scale production may have their roots in the generation of the parents and grandparents.

'Mona Lisa of Galilee’

The image of a hare gorging on grape clusters also appears – among the other impressive images – on the spectacular mosaics discovered in the agora, the market square, of the ancient city of Zippori (Sepphoris) in Lower Galilee. “Hare meat was an important element in the nutrition menu,” says Etty Koriett Aharon, from the Nature and Parks Authority. “The inhabitants of the city, which in Roman times, 1,800 years ago, had a population of 25,000 to 35,000, ate plenty of hares and loved their taste; and hares, we know, love sweet grapes.” As a teenager, Koriett Aharon, who grew up in Moshav Zippori, joined archaeological expeditions that uncovered the singular mosaic floors. One can look at them endlessly and not be sated by their beauty and the details they reveal about the food and dreams of the ancients in this land.

A detail of the Nile mosaic at Zippori.Credit: Dan Perez

“One of the Jewish sources from the Mishnaic period mentions 180,000 jugs containing spices and broth in the Zippori market,” Koriett Aharon says, as she walks through the streets of the ancient market, which was once densely packed with dozens of booths selling spices, textiles, perfumes, oils and fruits and vegetables. In the first centuries C.E., when nearby Nazareth was just a small village, Zippori’s farmers and food manufacturers already had a fine reputation and benefited from an agricultural hinterland of fertile soil thanks to the Zippori Stream and the Beit Netofa Valley.

The dazzling mosaic that was discovered on the floor of what’s known as Dionysus House, a private residential villa in ancient Zippori, is the best place in the world to understand how luxurious meals were conducted in the Roman period (even if the modern structure that was built around the floor and the archaeological ruins is ugly on a global scale, an affront to the aesthetics of former times). In the mosaic, which was effectively the carpet or parquet floor of the affluent of the time, the ancient creators used 90-degree angles to mark the triclinium (literally “three couches”; the formal dining room in a Roman building, and the source of the Hebrew word traklin, meaning parlor or drawing room).

Those who dined in the triclinium reclined on a couch on their left side and propped themselves up with the left elbow, leaving the right hand free for eating. The couches or chaise longues were placed in a U shape, with three people in each such grouping. The fortunate guests – oh, to have been a fly on the wall at one of those historic repasts – not only enjoyed the food that was placed on oval wooden tables and served by slaves and bondswomen, but also the cinematic mosaic on the floor, which depicted a competition between Hercules and Dionysus involving the consumption of wine spiced with hot goats’ milk.

One section of the mosaic in the dining room is the so-called “Mona Lisa of Galilee,” a gorgeous portrait of a woman who is either the goddess of love, or the mistress of the home – and the beloved of the person who commissioned the work.

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