There are twenty-five known ancient synagogues in the Golan. While some are only known from stone fragments found during construction of recent villages, many of the sites have been positively located, and six of them have been excavated. Their presence points to the existence of a strong Jewish culture in the area, one with a fine tradition in carving the tough black basalt stone that covers the region.
Some of these synagogues are surprisingly close in proximity, such as those in Kanaf and Deir Aziz. Kanaf, which is most easily accessible from the settlement of Ma'ale Gamla, can be reached by taking the private road which stretches through the community. As the blue and white signs start changing to black and white, you will reach a fork. There you will need to leave the car and, by foot, begin climbing up the hill toward the square building which sits on the skyline.
The building formerly functioned as a Syrian warehouse, and is built on top of the ruins of the synagogue.
While some of the Syrian arches which support the roof are well-formed, for the most part the work is crude, and the black stones are slapped over in white mortar. In contrast, the original structure, which remains at low level and is several courses high at the north-east corner, is well dressed and without visible mortar.
The structure had been identified as an early synagogue in 1932 by the archeologist Eleazar Sukenik (father of Yigael Yadin, Israel's second Chief of Staff), who published the existence of an inscription which read, "Remember for good Jose ben Halpho ben Hanania" - obviously a generous donor. More pieces of the inscription were found in the Syrian village in 1967 when the site was first inspected by several Israeli archeologists.
During the first rounds of excavations, which were conducted in 1978 by Zvi Maoz, it was determined that the synagogue was founded in the early sixth century. While a rather precise date for the building was derived from 532 coins found in the structure which were minted between the years 425 CE to 518 CE, evidence of a settlement from the earlier Hellenistic period - perhaps from the time of the Maccabees, when Alexander Jannai conquered the Golan in 81 BCE - and even more ancient, the remains of an 11th-century BCE tomb were also discovered beneath the synagogue's foundations.
Given the remarkably expansive view from the site, which stretches over the Kinneret and the Jordan valley, it is not surprising that it was inhabited for the last three thousand years. While the water supply would have been a problem for those who lived there, there are two small springs to the east of the village, and the copious spring that runs below Deir Aziz is only three kilometers away.
The glory of the original synagogue can be seen in the scattered stone carvings and columns that lie alongside it. There is a fine eight-pointed star and Roman-type moldings that must have taken many hours of labor. All of the carvings illustrate the love and importance accorded by the early villagers to their synagogue.
Although the building served for worship, it was also the communal center of the village, and it would have been used for meetings in times of peace, as well as times of danger. At Kanaf, evidence was found of larger and smaller columns, indicating that there was a second story. Its function may well have been to accommodate more townsfolk for the meetings, rather than serving as a gallery for the women, who were unlikely to have come to the services.
There is evidence of a Jewish village in the area, laid out in a radial pattern with the synagogue as its focus. It was rebuilt in the late Byzantine period, possibly after destruction by an earthquake, and later abandoned. Later dwellings of the Mameluke and Ottoman periods were built near the synagogue, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the site was occupied by Beduin, who were then followed by Syrian farmers. The farmers, along with their animals, built the storehouse over the destroyed synagogue.
WHILE THE shortest route to Deir Aziz is a difficult footpath, the modern traveler is advised to take Route 869 to present-day Kanaf, drive through the agricultural sheds (on the left before the main gate), and continue straight until reaching a spring which spills into a pool popular among cyclists. The synagogue, easily visible on the hillside, is approached through a small wicket gate and a short, stepped pathway.
The path stretches through a small paved forecourt, and on to the original east entrance to the synagogue. The prayer hall was divided by two rows of four columns standing on fine articulated pedestals, all in black basalt. The north wall is a retaining one, holding back the hillside, and at the top it has a unique projecting course to carry the original roof timbers. The west side has two doorways, one to a former storeroom that could have held the Torah scrolls.
It may be that the original direction of prayer was to the west, but it was later changed to the south, as there is clear evidence of a semi-circular niche facing south, toward Jerusalem. There are triple-stepped benches on all sides except the south, which later held the Ark, and perhaps a bima (reading desk), as well.
The synagogue was excavated by a Bar-Ilan University team between 1998 and 2004, and they determined that construction of the prayer hall, with a narrow stair to a gallery, began in the mid-sixth century. They found hundreds of bronze coins and two gold ones of Justinian I (527-565 CE). The Ark was constructed later, and an additional fourteen gold coins were found in a pomegranate jar between its stones.
The columns collapsed in the earthquake of 749, but were re-erected in the early ninth century when a new western faÃ§ade was built with two doorways and a raised forecourt. One building block was found with a cross on it, which may indicate that the synagogue was now facing east and acting as a church.
Later a wall was built between the northern columns, and the southern half was left unroofed, as if the structure was now only a narrow store and an open terrace.
In the twentieth century the building was divided by a central cross wall, one half used as a residence and the other half to store stone fragments. One fragment had an inscription which read: "Let live Ioudan and also Azizos, the stone carver." It is possible that this stonemason preserved the original name of the village, Aziz, which was augmented to Deir Aziz, meaning the monastery of Aziz, after it became a Christian village in the eighth or ninth century.
Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg is a Senior Fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, in Jerusalem.