The synagogue of Umm el-Kanatir

One of the most fascinating synagogues on the Golan Heights is being carefully reconstructed.

umm el-kanatir 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy of the Golan Tourist Board)
umm el-kanatir 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Golan Tourist Board)
The Golan remains a mystery for many of us. Before the Six Day War, little was known about it in literature and even less on the ground. Only after its conquest by the IDF in 1967 could historians and archeologists begin to reveal its rich history. They began to find and document dozens of synagogues from the Byzantine period, towns of the Jewish revolt against the Romans, early Christian sites of the time of Jesus, a city of the Hellenistic period, major Iron Age settlements, Early Bronze Age tombs and even one of the most mysterious constructions of Chalcolithic times, 6,000 years ago, when men and women worked in copper and stone to form remarkable monuments. But even today, a little more than 40 years after the end of the Six Day War (and 40 years is a significant figure in our ancient history), the Golan is still off the beaten track and its impressive historical remains are not as well known as those of Galilee and the Negev. Today on the Golan, the greatest Jewish interest centers on the synagogues, which number as many as 25. Some have been largely renovated, like that of Katzrin, but one of the most fascinating stands in ruins at Umm el-Kanatir, and is now being carefully reconstructed stone by stone by engineer Yeshu Drei and archeologist Haim Ben-David of the Kinneret Academic College and Bar-Ilan University. Drei has erected a giant mobile crane on the site and plans to lift all the remaining black basalt stones, which have been carefully numbered from one to more than 2,000, into position within the next two years. The work has been going on apace for some five years and, when complete, it will be a fine monument to the skill of the original builders of the fifth and sixth centuries CE and the meticulous reconstructors of today. It already gives us today an impressive picture of what the synagogue must have been like in the past. The name of the site, Umm el-Kanatir, is Arabic for "mother of the arches," as it is situated just 200 meters from a natural spring that issues from the cliff and has been directed into three basins originally surmounted by three monumental basalt arches. They are the work of a Roman settlement, of the time of Rabbi Judah Hanassi, that venerated the natural water source and had seemingly worshiped cultic statues in the niches between the arches. Only one arch remains intact, but the water basins are still running with their natural supply, and it looks as if the early Jewish inhabitants used the abundant water for the washing and whitening of flax, a local product. The process would have made it into fine clothing material for the rich and prosperous citizens of the local Jewish and pagan population of the adjoining cities like Sussita and Beit Saida, called Hippos and Julia by the Romans. But flax was also used for run-of-the-mill peasants' clothing and thus this center would have supplied many surrounding villages with their cloth. Umm el-Kanatir seems to be relatively difficult to get to, there is no clear track or pathway, but to have reached it by donkey would not have been a problem. Besides the growing of flax, the land was suitable for small-scale husbandry, olives and herding, but too steep for large-scale crops and there is little evidence of terracing. After the Roman period, Jews settled here and became wealthy enough, probably from the flax industry, to build their fine synagogue in the fifth century. To the surprise of the archeologists, they found another floor level and column bases below the main floor, and there is a suspicion that the structure was started 100 or 200 years earlier on a lower base. The synagogue we see today would have been the remains of a sixth-century embellishment made 100 years or so later than the main phase. The Jews lived on in the village for several hundred years after the completion of the synagogue, but their buildings, including the synagogue, were largely destroyed by the major earthquake of 749, which also destroyed the Christian monastery of Kursi and most of the buildings in Sussita, both fine constructions near the shores of Lake Kinneret. The ruined buildings of Umm el-Kanatir survived in poor state and were used by local shepherds for many years and, as late as the 1950s, Syrian herders moved in and built their primitive houses from the stones of the ruined synagogue. So the site was to some degree in continual habitation and in fact it was not completely unknown to scholars before 1967. In the late 19th century, Gottlieb Schumacher, a German Templer engineer, surveyed the area of the Golan for the Hejaz railway line and its branch to Haifa, and he found the synagogue ruins, as did Sir Laurence Oliphant, an eccentric British diplomat who had worked in China and Japan. Oliphant became an ardent Zionist and lived for some years near Haifa. He had travelled extensively in Russia and Nepal before turning his attention to the then-desolate Golan, which interested him because of his fascination with the mysterious and the occult. They both recorded their observation of the ruins but could do little except to identify them as a synagogue. This was fairly clear because of two column capitals with the figure of a menora and shofar, and a pronounced bima, four meters high, in front of the ark, the only such feature among the synagogues of the Golan and Galilee. The bima, which is being restored, was approached by a short flight of stairs, still in position. The size of the structure, 18 meters long by 13 meters wide and calculated to have been 12 meters high, makes it one of the biggest of ancient synagogues and indicates the relative wealth of the village community. It will have served as a community center, as most synagogues did, with learning facilities and accommodation for travelers. It had an upper story but this was not necessarily for women, rather it was an overflow for days of greater attendance, for town meetings as well as services. Whether women attended the synagogue is still a matter of debate. If and when they did, they would have sat in a separate section, probably on the ground floor, either in a side room, of which there is evidence in some synagogues, or in a roped-off section of the main hall. Most ancient synagogues were single-story structures with benches around three sides of the hall, and without provision for the women, and it is indeed doubtful if, at this early date, the women ever left the home to attend services. Besides the capitals crowned with the menora and shofar, already mentioned, there are a few strange carvings that have still to be interpreted. There is a column base showing one animal attacking another and being watched by a chicken, whose meaning is obscure. Another shows the face of a grotesque man sticking his tongue out at the beholder. The researchers think these pieces were stolen from nearby pagan sites and just used as infill stones, their carvings hidden from view. Another panel is inscribed with a nine-branched candelabra on a plain background, which may have been carved so as not to imitate the seven-branched menora of the Temple, which the rabbis said should not be copied outside of it. But it may indicate that a hanukkia was already in use at this early date, as there are at least two other carvings of nine-branched menorot, from early Golan synagogues, both of which are now in the local archeological museum at Katzrin. The site of the synagogue is on the hillside overlooking the beautiful valley of Nahal Samak, and two kilometers west of Natur. It can be approached by car from Route 808, taking the turn to Natur and then following along the gravel and sign-posted track that leads to a sizable car park. From here, there is now a well-paved path (laid with the help of the yeshiva boys of Haspin) with basalt steps down to the synagogue, and a pathway to the left (south) to the remains of the village and the triple-arched water basins. After the traumas of the Jewish Revolt and the Bar Kochba Revolt, Jews moved north from Judah and settled in the Golan and lived here in peace and quiet until the time of the short-lived Persian invasion of 614 and the later Arab conquest of 638. In this relative backwater they continued their unfettered rural life, and it was not till the earthquake of 749, which affected a large area of the Golan, that the inhabitants left to settle elsewhere. They left behind them the ruins of a beautiful synagogue that modern-day researchers and engineers are rebuilding with the use of new technology, and which they believe will one day bring the ruins back into use to become one of the oldest working synagogues in the Golan. The writer is a senior fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.