The most beautiful mosaic ever found in Israel – and some say in the entire world – was unearthed in Lod 21 years ago. About 1,600 years ago, a group of mosaic artists created the enormous floor from tiny colored stones, producing fascinating images of elephants, giraffes and sea monsters. The mosaic was a pinnacle of the art form.
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In recent years, over 1 million people have admired ‘The Lod Mosaic’ at such prestigious sites as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, and at many other major cities around the world. However, it has never been displayed in Israel.
Now, though, a small part of the mosaic is on display at the Israel National Maritime Museum in Haifa (until April 2018). The section on show is covered with fish, sea monsters and ships. It is incredible and is undoubtedly worth the trip. The big question now is why we have to journey to Haifa to see it, and not its home city of Lod in central Israel?
In 1996, during development and infrastructure work in the city (which is 25 kilometers, or 15 miles, east of Tel Aviv), the remains of a large, luxurious Roman villa from the Byzantine era were discovered at the corner of Yasmin and Hehalutz streets. The mosaic was at the center of the villa, dating back to the third and fourth centuries C.E., found at a depth of 0.5 meters to 1.5 meters (1.5 feet to 5 feet). The mosaic is 180 square meters in area (approximately 1,940 square feet) and is comprised of a number of spectacular, colorful panels: birds and fish, ships and shellfish, flowers and plants, along with animals such as elephants and lions cover the floor, alongside geometric patterns.
The mosaic was in excellent condition when it was discovered, almost completely undamaged.
Jewish ship owner
Dr. Zaraza Friedman, an archaeologist and expert on the iconography of ships in mosaics, says the maritime section of the mosaic – about a quarter of the original, and the part on display in Haifa – says the owner of the house was obviously rich and involved in the maritime trade (he may have owned merchant ships). The mosaic also clearly shows that the owner had widespread connections with North Africa, and the mosaic artist probably came from there, she says.
The unique motifs on the ships’ bows show that the house owner was a traditional Jew, says Friedman. After the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., large Jewish communities formed in Tzippori and Beit She’arim in the Galilee, and Lod. A few of the most important Jewish scholars and rabbis from the time lived in Lod; Friedman believes the house owner used the port in Jaffa for his merchant business, and that living in nearby Lod was convenient for him.
The discovery of the mosaic was a huge surprise to the archaeological community in Israel. But without any money to pay for conservation, restoration and proper display, the mosaic was opened to the public for one day only, and then re-covered with dirt, in order to protect it.
Thirteen years later, in 2009, it seemed as if a solution had finally been found. The Leon Levy Foundation, along with Levy’s widow, Shelby White – chairwoman of the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority – provided funds to restore the mosaic, along with money to build the Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center on the site where it was found. It was to be named after White and Levy.
The mosaic was uncovered again and displayed to a limited group of people – again, for one day only – and then moved to the IAA’s restoration workshop in the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum, Jerusalem.
Eran Hamo, who worked for the IAA at the time, showed the mosaic at the restoration workshop a short while later. I saw spectacular panels packed with birds and animals. Other sections, which were taken from the ground in Lod in one piece, embarked on a world tour. Eleven museums, including some of the most famous in the world, fought over who could exhibit it. The mosaic appeared in New York and San Francisco in 2011, then the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and from there to Columbus, Ohio. In early 2013 it was displayed at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and from there to the Louvre, Berlin, Saint Petersburg, Venice and back to America – to Florida.
Melissa Ferguson, the director of marketing and communications at the Columbus Museum of Art, said the eight-month exhibit was a great success in 2012, and over 100,000 people viewed the mosaic. The museum has enjoyed a long relationship with the IAA – and, of course, paid to exhibit the mosaic.
Rust and weeds
For the past eight years, everyone involved with the mosaic has promised that the archaeological center will be built in Lod any day now – but the pieces still aren’t coming together.
A visit to the site where the mosaic was found, where the new museum is planned, is a depressing experience. The only signs of life are the 2-meter-high weeds, surrounded by a rusted fence. A large rusting sign at the corner of the empty site says the archaeological center will be built here. At this rate, the sign itself might become one of the museum’s artifacts.
Three institutions are partners in preserving and displaying the “Lod Mosaic”: the IAA is the professional body in charge; the Leon Levy Foundation and Shelby White are supposed to fund the IAA’s activities; and Lod City Hall is the host. The three provided answers to questions from Haaretz last week, all basically saying, “What’s the rush? Patience!” Sure, because it has only been 21 years and the mosaic has yet to be fully shown in Israel.
Lod City Hall said it was working with the IAA to build the mosaic center in Lod’s Old City, which will include another impressive mosaic discovered very close to the first one. The center is in the final stages of detailed planning, and the infrastructure work needed for construction will commence next month, city hall said. Construction on the actual building is expected to start this October.
But it is far too early to start celebrating. A quick Google search unearths an announcement from Lod City Hall in April 2014, exactly three years ago, which is almost word for word the same as the statement made this month, but with a few more details about the plans. Only the date is different: in the 2014 statement, the mosaic center was scheduled to open by the end of 2015.
Jennifer E. Ellis, director of communications and operations manager for the Leon Levy Foundation in New York, sounded rather surprised that an Israeli journalist was calling to ask for details on the 1,600-year-old mosaic.
The answers she agreed to provide, before she hurriedly bade me farewell, were short. “The Leon Levy Foundation funded the rescue of the mosaic in 2009 and since then it has traveled the world,” she said. “Now we are waiting for it to return to its original location in Lod, so we can build the museum above it.”
Yes, there have been delays, but it will proceed quickly now, she promised. The foundation is only one of the institutions funding the museum, and unfortunately the exhibit of the mosaic around the world did not bring in money to pay for the center, added Ellis.
Someone should tell Ellis that the mosaic will not return to Lod before the building is complete. Until then, it will continue to sit in some dark warehouse.
Raanan Kislev, director of the IAA’s conservation department, says the mosaic returned to Israel from its epic journey in 2015. It was then briefly exhibited at the opening ceremony for the Antiquities Authority’s new headquarters and museum in Jerusalem, which is still under construction.
The planning for the mosaic visitors center in Lod is now being completed, he added. If there are no changes, the work will start in August and it will be completed in early 2019, he says.
“It is very important to us to build a structure that will not be a white elephant in a complicated environment. The connection to the local community in Lod is very important to us; it is the key to the success of the entire project,” added Kislev.
On the second floor of the Maritime Museum in Haifa, you can sit and reflect on the exhibit in quiet contemplation. Dr. Filip Vukosavovic, the museum’s curator, proudly shows me the section of the mosaic. We both agree it is most impressive.
Displayed alongside the mosaic are the footprints of some of the artists who created it, which were found underneath the mosaic. A precise wooden model of the ship in the mosaic is also on display, along with a few of the colorful stones found at the site in Lod, probably pieces from the frescoes on the walls alongside the mosaic.
Dr. Friedman tells me how it is possible to tell that the two ships in the mosaic only look as if they are floating somewhere, but in fact are actually at anchor. Images of immobile ships that appear to be in motion accompany me on my long journey south to Lod.
‘The Lod Mosaic’ is at the National Maritime Museum in Haifa until April 2018. Opening hours: Sun-Wed 10 A.M. to 4 P.M., Thur 4 P.M. to 7 P.M., Fri 10 A.M. to 1 P.M. and Sat 10 A.M. to 3 P.M.