Avirama Harris leans over and puts some mosaic fragments back that were out of place. The fragments consist of tiny stones – colorful squares less than a centimeter in dimension. The large mosaic floor at Shavei Tzion, near Nahariya on the northern Israel coast, was constructed 1,500 years ago in one of the region’s most beautiful places. It boasts a bayside view of the Mediterranean coast and its small sandstone pools.
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Harris is a tour guide from Kibbutz Tuval and conducts mosaic tours in the area. She expresses concern over the state of the mosaic floor at Shavei Tzion: It is totally exposed and subject to possible damage from storms or humans, she warns.
“We all love mosaics,” she says, “but this love is liable to destroy many of the places where ancient mosaics have been uncovered.”
After 1,500 years, there is another mosaic art boom in Israel, and the vast majority of those engaging in it are women.
You will find dozens of contemporary mosaic artisans a short drive from the crumbling floor at Shavei Tzion, most of whom participate as part of a community activity or hobby, furthering the area’s long mosaic tradition.
The “Treasures of the Galilee” program, for which Harris serves as a guide, is a nonprofit that combines the search for mosaics, both ancient and modern, and a Western Galilee tourist itinerary.
Dalit Ben-Shalom of Kfar Vradim runs a major mosaic workshop at nearby Kibbutz Yehiam. As five women sit around a table patiently assembling small pieces for bowls, pans, tables and garden sculptures, Ben-Shalom explains the artform’s popularity. “The technique is so simple, anyone can do it,” she says. “There is no need to possess a major talent or skill to be able to achieve nice and even brilliant results.”
Dr. Mordechai Aviam, of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology, explains that during the Byzantine period – particularly in the fifth and sixth centuries C.E. – hundreds and perhaps even thousands of mosaics were produced around the country.
In the rather small area of the Western Galilee alone, which was clearly Christian at the time, 60 Byzantine churches containing more than 30 mosaics have been discovered.
Anywhere public buildings were constructed, whether they were churches, synagogues or the homes of wealthy families, there were mosaics. Commissioning a mosaic in a private home was not an afterthought. They were rather expensive, but were also part of the urban culture of the time.
The discovery of an elaborate mosaic floor at a Byzantine church at Givat Katznelson in Nahariya infuriates both Aviam and Harris. The site was excavated back in the 1970s and ’80s with funds from Bielefeld, Nahariya’s sister city in Germany. A roofed structure was built over the site and it opened to visitors, becoming a popular tourist destination. But after several years, the Nahariya municipality decided – apparently due to pressure from some religious Jews in the city – to close the site to visitors, meaning that one of the most beautiful mosaics ever discovered in Israel is currently inaccessible to the public.
In an effort to console me, Aviam says that a mosaic was discovered three years ago, at a site near Kibbutz Hukok on Lake Kinneret, the likes of which has never been seen in Israel. Since there was a synagogue on the site 1,500 years ago, there’s a good chance the site will be opened to the public and we will get to see what Aviam has been talking about. The mosaic includes a depiction of the story of Samson and an inscription, in Hebrew, in praise of those who carry out mitzvot (good deeds).
From the Garden of Eden to the IDF
Kibbutz Eilon, just south of the Lebanese border, is a mosaic powerhouse. A factory, Eilon Mosaic Creations, was established there in 1959. Nitza Rappaport, the plant’s production manager, says the factory – which was sold off by the kibbutz eight years ago – has enjoyed considerable success recently. Its 20 employees produce a variety of mosaics. The best-selling ones are reproductions of famous ancient mosaics from Israel, including the Beit Alfa synagogue floor that features the Signs of the Zodiac.
To fully understand the scope of the work at Eilon Mosaic Creations, head west to Acre, home of the Or Torah or Djerba (Tunisian) synagogue, a unique place. The four-story synagogue on Kaplan Street is covered – top to bottom, inside and out – with mosaics produced at Kibbutz Eilon. The work, all made with natural stone, was commissioned by Zion Badash, who was a leader of the congregation for more than 20 years and died in late 2015. The synagogue’s hundreds of mosaics tell the story of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, stories from the Bible, the Tribes of Israel, flora and fauna, and even reference the Israel Defense Forces.
The biggest surprise awaits those who take a short stroll from the Eilon Mosaic Creations factory and visit the Davidson Garden, situated in the middle of the kibbutz grounds. The factory’s chief artist, Meirke Davidson, and his wife, Ruth, lived in a small house in the garden, where Meirke also planted cacti around the outside of the house. However, because he wanted to tell the story of the flight from the Garden of Eden, he began installing metal sculptures that he covered in intricate mosaics. He began the effort in 1954 and you can now find some 340 of Davidson’s works scattered in and around the house.