Situated less than three kilometers away from the famous Talmudic village of Katzrin is the synagogue of Ein Nashut. Discovered after the Six-Day War, and first excavated by archaeologist Zvi Maoz in 1978, the synagogue lies within a ruined village, whose destroyed walls and remnants of two olive oil presses are spread over six acres.
The synagogue was constructed at an earlier date than many others in the Golan. During excavations of the foundations, eight coins dated to around the year 390 CE were discovered, and another 103 coins dated to as late as the rule of Emperor Honorius (408-423 CE) were found under the entrance paving . While the presence of the coins has assisted modern archeologists in their work, they also served a purpose for the villagers of the time. Back then, it was tradition to set a large number of low-value coins in the foundations. High-value gold coins were also found during the digs, but their purpose was different - they were either part of a private cache which was left abandoned or part of an unutilized offering.These coins, together with a smaller collection of 51 copper bits dating from 425 CE to 450 CE which were found in a chamber below the synagogue, date the building to the mid-fifth century - only a generation or two after the completion of the Jerusalem Talmud.
In the sixth century, repairs were made to the ark, and a new floor was laid to the entry porch, probably following the earthquake of 551 CE. The synagogue continued to be used until the seventh century, when the village was abandoned.
While the synagogue is smaller than normal, having only six columns split into two rows, it is still sophisticated, with benches along the walls set above steps meant to provide more room for the feet.
On the south wall, facing Jerusalem, there is an impression of the ark in the plasterwork and remains of the lowest step of its niche. There was an annex at the south-east corner, which may have been where the Torah scrolls were stored, and at the north-east corner there is the base of a staircase which provided access to a gallery or the roof.
Ein Nashut is famous for the beauty of its carving, including sculptures of animals, such as lions and eagles, which are now in the archaeological museum in Katzrin. Lions were considered to be potent guardians of the building, and eagles were the psychopomps - that is, symbols of the spirits that accompanied the souls of the dead to heaven.
The column heads were of the diagonal Ionic type, and they divided the capital into four faces, the best of which is on display in the Katzrin museum. On one face a nine-branched menora is carved. It was thought that the carving was made to avoid the rabbinic precept against reproducing the menora of the Temple (Talmud Babli R.H. 24A), but that theory is invalidated by another face of the capital, which shows the seven-branched menora, like the Temple.
An architrave was found with the inscription, "Abun ben Jose," presumably to honor the donor, and he had a special seat allocated to him in the north-east corner of the synagogue. Two basalt sarcophagi (burial cases) were discovered on the hill west of the synagogue, one inscribed to "Shimon ben Abun, aged 26." Was this the son of the chief donor, whose death at an early age had inspired his father to build the synagogue?
The village site existed in the first century, well before the synagogue was built, but was destroyed by the Romans in the great Jewish Revolt of 66 CE. It was resettled several hundred years later when there was an economic revival under the Roman Emperor Constantine, after which the synagogue was founded. It stood until the seventh century.
The site lies off Route 91. Take the turn south toward Katzrin, and then the first turn north where, after about a kilometer, there is a brown sign to the synagogue on the right. From here the site is visible, but one has to walk through undergrowth, crossing the (not always dry) Wadi Mishushim, before clambering up to the synagogue. The black basalt carved ruins make it all worthwhile.
GOING BACK to Katzrin, and then turning onto Route 87 southward will lead to Yehudiya, a ruined Jewish village on the east side of the road. Travelers can leave their cars at the parking lot opposite the ruins.
The name Yehudiya was given to the site by the nineteenth-century German Templer engineer and explorer Gottlieb Schumacher, and adopted by the local Beduin. The Syrians, however, were not happy with the name. In 1967, when Syrian army maps were found by advancing Israeli forces, the village had been renamed, "Ya'arabaya".
The synagogue has not yet been excavated, but pieces of its decor have been found among the ruins of the village houses, and scattered columns lie in the main courtyard between the houses. One wall plate, found built into a village house, is of particular importance. It is a basalt tablet of the menora together with the usual shofar and incense shovel. Of special interest is that the menora has nine branches, like the one on the capital at Ein Nashut. The tablet is now in the Katzrin Museum.
Both the menora in Yehudiya and the menora at Ein Nashut date to the second half of the fifth century. These carvings, as well as another on one of the stones of the ancient synagogue at Umm el-Qanatir, also in the Golan, all point to the kind of menora that was later known as a hanukkia, which is today used to kindle the eight lights of Hanukka.
Although the Hanukka story dates back to the early days of the Maccabees, when the Temple was rededicated around 165 BCE, there would have been no nine-branched candelabra made while the Temple still existed; nor would one have been used while there was still hope of rebuilding the Temple in the time of Shimon Bar-Kochba, who led a revolt between 132-136 CE, or even later in the fourth century CE, when the Roman Emperor Julian renounced Christianity and gave the Jews the opportunity to rebuild the Temple.
It was probably only after the early death of Julian, with the return of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, that Jews lost all hope of building a new Temple, and therefore felt it possible to fabricate a menora similar to one that had existed in the holy site.
This transition may have taken place in the fifth century, a theory which I believe is demonstrated by the carvings on the capital of Ein Nashut, on the tablet of Yehudiya, and the stonework of Umm el-Qanatir, all of which were created at that time. That these examples all occur in the Golan just goes to show the importance of creative Jewish life and tradition in this rather remote part of Israel.
The author is a Senior Fellow of the W.F.Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.