Archaeology / When Golan Worshipers Faced South

Zvi Maoz says that every day excavations at a synagogue among the ruins of the village of Dir Aziz force him to rip another page from his doctoral thesis on synagogues in the Golan Heights.

Ran Shapira
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Ran Shapira

Zvi Maoz says that every day excavations at a synagogue among the ruins of the village of Dir Aziz force him to rip another page from his doctoral thesis on synagogues in the Golan Heights. Dir Aziz synagogue, next to Moshav Kanaf, has been excavated over the last five seasons and differs in many respects from other synagogues in the area.

Until excavations began here, archaeologists had speculated that in Golan Heights synagogues the Ark was adjacent to the western wall, one of the two shorter sides of the rectangular-shaped structure. This would allow believers to face the general direction of Jerusalem while praying.

In Dir Aziz, however, the worshipers faced south toward the long wall of the structure, not the one along the width. This is indicated by a space that juts out from the southern lengthwise wall of the synagogue, where the Ark apparently was located.

In this respect, the structure of the Dir Aziz synagogue resembles that of synagogues in the southern Hebron hills. The special niche for the Ark found in the Golan Heights' synagogue is also typical of synagogues in the southern Hebron hills, and especially those found in Susiya and Eshtamoa. Another unique feature of the Dir Aziz synagogue is the bas-reliefs of animals in the stone and wreath designs drawn on the whitewash.

Dr. Haim Ben David, the director of the Land of Israel Studies department at the Jordan Valley Academic College, who is in charge of the excavation team at Dir Aziz, notes that a segment of a decorative arch found at the site bears the Greek inscription, Azizo. Kfar Aziz is known as the name of a Jewish settlement in the southern Hebron hills. The architectural similarity between the Dir Aziz synagogue and synagogues in the southern Hebron hills, led to the hypothesis that the reason for its unique features in comparison to other Golan Heights' synagogues, is the migration of residents from one region to another.

However, there are other possible explanations for the presence of the inscription here. The name Aziz or Azizo is known as a Semitic first name. In other words, it is possible that the founders of the synagogue engraved the name of the donor who helped them build it. Azizo is also the name of a Semitic god known from Roman-era inscriptions found in Tadmor and Horen (in present day Syria) and in the Beit She'an Valley.

Ben David and Maoz raise the possibility, although they acknowledge that it is slim at the moment, that the arch was originally part of a pagan structure and that it was included in the synagogue by its founders.

Students from the Jordan Valley Academic College on their last day at the dig found two more pieces of the decorative arch with another 20 or so letters of the Greek inscription. Fully decoding this inscription will help determine which hypothesis is nearest the truth.

The synagogue was built in the middle of a slope on the west bank of the Kanaf River, around six and a half kilometers east of Lake Kinneret. According to Ben David, who has been digging at the site with his students from the Land of Israel Studies department, under the auspices of Bar Ilan University's Archeology Institute, the synagogue served a community that existed during the Byzantine era and covered an area of approximately 30 dunams. The site was inhabited during the entire Roman and Byzantine eras.

The first to report on the synagogue was Sir Lawrence Oliphant, who visited the region in 1885 and described the eastern facade of the building, which had been preserved intact and stood three meters tall. The excavations at Dir Aziz resumed after the Six Day War, but Israeli researchers who arrived there no longer saw the facade, which apparently collapsed during a large 1920 earthquake in the area.

Nonetheless, the synagogue itself was surprisingly well preserved. The basalt stone floor, the bases on which eight pillars stood and even some of the pillars, three benches along three of the walls and a substantial part of the walls themselves remained intact. Under the floor, hundreds of copper Byzantine coins were found whose value was already not significant at the time the synagogue was built. Apparently, says Ben David, they were buried beneath the building in a symbolic act. In this respect, there is nothing special about the Dir Aziz synagogue. Such coins were found in all the Byzantine-era synagogues in the Golan Heights as well as in many of the ones built in Galilee.