Israel's Mosaics From Byzantium and Rome Thrill to Bits

The beautiful ancient mosaic floors around Israel prove that the genre's best artists lived 1,500 to 2,000 years ago

At Hirbet Hanut in the Jerusalem hills lies a small, damaged mosaic. It's definitely not one of the most beautiful in Israel, a powerhouse in ancient mosaics. Its magic lies in that it's covered. If you want to see it, you have to take a small broom lying nearby and sweep away a layer of sand, there to protect the artwork. Underneath is a floor made of small stones in geometric patterns.

The mosaic at Hirbet Hanut, apparently the floor of a sixth-century Byzantine church, boasts colorful vine tendrils and hexagons. Its depictions of animals were destroyed long ago. The sweeping away of the sand stirs the joy of discovery; then comes the amazement.

The huge effort by people here 1,500 years ago to beautify the floor is astonishing. They didn't want to live or worship in a room with a dull floor. Their patience reflects a love of aesthetics; it also helps us imagine their lives.

It's easy to assume that mosaics were a sign of wealth and power. Looking at them today, if they're lying in ruins without a roof overhead, we're reminded that wealth doesn't necessarily provide security – certainly not in the long run.

Dr. Zvika Zuk, the chief archaeologist at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, says mosaics have been found in Israel in homes (in Caesarea, Afek and Tzippori) and in public buildings like synagogues, churches and palaces (Ma’on, Beit Alfa, Ein Gedi, Kursi and Masada). The two main periods were the Roman era (about 2,000 years ago) and the Byzantine era (about 1,500 years ago).

According to Zuk, the genre peaked in quality in the middle of the Roman era. It peaked in quantity and popularity in the Byzantine era. A mosaic's quality is determined by the number of stones in a square decimeter (10 centimeters by 10 centimeters). In the Roman period, about 400 stones were set in this small area. In the Byzantine era, the number dropped.

There are hundreds of ancient mosaic floors in Israel. The huge number and wide distribution means you don't have to go far to see one. In some places, like Tzippori, there are dozens of mosaic floors, but sometimes a remote and not very spectacular piece, like the one at Hirbet Hanut (near Route 375), or the one at the synagogue in Ma’on leaves the strongest impression.

The following are some of the best mosaics in Israel.

Tzippori

Tzippori was once a splendid city. In the third century C.E., Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi moved there, lived there for 17 years and redacted the Mishna – "the Oral Torah." According to the evidence, there were 18 synagogues there, and during the period of the Mishna and the Talmud, the greatest Torah sages lived there.

Excavations at Tzippori over the past 20 years have unearthed some of Israel's most beautiful mosaics, notably those at the Nile House and the Dionysus House. At the Nile House, an astonishing mosaic depicts celebrations in Egypt and hunting scenes. At the Dionysus House, at the top of the hill, a mosaic depicts the life of the wine god Dionysus. In the frame surrounding the mosaic is the figure of a woman; she has become known as the Mona Lisa of Tzippori. The lighting there is excellent. The tiny stones leave no doubt that in the Galilee in the first centuries C.E., some of the genre's best artists worked.

Tzippori National Park, which charges an entry fee, is open all week. Get there via Route 79, Hamovil Junction-Nazareth, between the 22 and 23 kilometer markers.

Hamat

Hamat Tiberias, south of Tiberias, was famous for its hot springs. There the third-century Severus Synagogue has been excavated; in its center lies a colorful mosaic, the oldest found in an Israeli synagogue. During that period the Sanhedrin council met in Tiberias, and the name Severus was found in a Greek inscription at the synagogue.

In the mosaic at Hamat there are actually three mosaics. The central one shows a large zodiac wheel, with the sun god Helios at its center. In each corner is a woman representing a season of the year. At the edges are the Jewish symbols of a holy ark, a branched candelabrum and a ram’s horn. A similar Zodiac wheel appears in six other ancient synagogues from the period of the Talmud and the Mishna. In nearly all, Helios is in the center.

In May 2012 vandals badly damaged the Hamat mosaic, spray-painting it with graffiti and destroying other parts, but the Nature and Parks Authority has restored it.

There is an entrance fee to Hamat Tiberias National Park, which is open all week. Get there via Route 90 south of Tiberias, on the Kinneret's shore.

Beit Alpha

An interesting thing about the Beit Alpha mosaic on Kibbutz Heftziba is that we know who created it. The fifth-century artists Marianus and his son Hanina signed their masterpiece.

The mosaic is located in the main hall of the large synagogue there. It is divided into three carpets with the holy ark and the zodiac wheel clearly visible, along with a moving depiction of the sacrifice of Isaac.

The mosaic is in a national park in an air-conditioned building open all week. There is an entry fee. Get there via Kibbutz Heftzibah on Route 669 between Hashita Junction and Beit She’an, about 10 minutes west of Beit She’an.

The Good Samaritan

The Good Samaritan Mosaic Museum was dedicated in 2010. The museum is located at the Good Samaritan Inn, an archeological site in the West Bank on the Jerusalem-Dead Sea Highway. Dozens of mosaics have been brought there from throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to be restored. Most were brought from ancient synagogues and a number of churches. At the original sites the pieces were at risk of being destroyed.

The Good Samaritan mosaics are beautiful but there's something unpleasant about them. A mosaic belongs to a certain setting for which it was built. Any sense of this vanishes at the Good Samaritan Inn.

Zur of the Nature and Parks Authority agrees that the transferred mosaics lose something of their authenticity; he says that when the authority can it relocates mosaics to the original site. But the ancient synagogue in Gaza, for example, can no longer serve as a home for a mosaic.

The site is managed by the Nature and Parks Authority. It is open, with an entrance fee, all week. Get there via Highway 1, east of Ma’aleh Adumim.

Caesarea

The bird mosaic at Caesarea is a very special site. Part of its charm lies in that it's not part of a national park; it's in an ancient villa on tranquil Rothschild Street. This, apparently, was the splendid home of a Roman nobleman in the Byzantine era.

The site was unearthed more than 60 years ago but was covered up for protection; only in 2005 was it opened to visitors free. This is a huge and beautiful floor at whose center are 120 circular medallions, each housing a bird.

Ma’on

At the heart of the mosaic in the Hirbet Ma’on synagogue is a vine growing out of a jug. The vine's tendrils form medallions housing birds and mammals. There are 11 rows of five medallions each. Jewish symbols (a candelabrum, a ram’s horn and a frond of a date palm tree) are at the side of the mosaic near the synagogue's stage. At the sides are palm trees and lions. Alongside the trees are doves.

An open-sided shelter protects the artwork; it's open all week, free. The synagogue is located between Kibbutz Nir David and Kibbutz Nirim, about 1 kilometer southeast of the entrance to Kibbutz Nirim. Get there via Route 241 (Gillat Junction-Ma’on Junction).

The Lod mosaic: an exiled beauty

Connoisseurs consider this Israel's most beautiful mosaic; the only problem is that you can't view it yet.

The mosaic, apparently part of a Roman villa from the end of the third century C.E., was discovered in 1996 during the paving of Hehalutz Street in eastern Lod. In 2009 it was exposed for one week only, during which more than 20,000 people came to see it. The mosaic was then transferred to the mosaic workshop at Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.

Architect Eran Hemo, in charge of the project at the Israel Antiquities Authority, shows it off like a proud father. The mosaic is 17 meters long and about nine meters wide. One part, with dozens of fish, has been traveling for more than two years among museums in the United States. Hemo says that abroad it's more popular than the Dead Sea Scrolls.

One part has geometric designs and an impressive carpet of birds. Another part, with elephants, giraffes and other animals, is currently abroad.

At the site in Lod, footprints of a child and an adult were found under the piece, as well as a rare fresco that the mosaic was based on. All these are scheduled to return to Lod in 2014 as part of an exhibition in a museum still in the planning phase. Hemo says a museum like this, in which the local community will be involved, can change Lod's gray image and serve as an anchor for tourism.

Moshe Gilad