Cultural Exchange or Coincidence?
Mosaic Imagery at Jericho's Naaran Synagogue & Hisham's Palace
This year for Ramadan we succeeded in securing permits for our Gaza friends to join us in Jericho, where Israelis and Palestinians gathered to explore historical sites and break the traditional fast.
Our first stop was at a synagogue we our project has never visited before. Na'aran is located away from the center of town, in agricultural land and appears as a city in the tribe-land of Ephraim (Chronicles I),and in a story where little children scold the prophet Elisha (Kings II).
Jewish sources indicate that Jewish residents of Jericho and Na'aran were in conflict with their gentile neighbors, including monks, in Byzantine times. This is probably due to the scarcity of water in that part of the desert, and the struggle to control the water source. As a result of this struggle, Jews centered their lives around the synagogue (Midrash Eicha Raba).
Our local Palestinian Muslim guide explained that the Naaran synagogue proves there was always peaceful coexistence between the different people of Jericho. This narrative also appears on the site's information plaque.
Unfortunately, we were not presented with other evidence that Jews and Muslims lived simultaneously in Jericho, as the synagogue predates Islam and we have no information of Jewish presence in Jericho after the coming of Islam.
We see signs of vandalism on the synagogue mosaic, as faces and symbols in the floor have been damaged by those who felt it sacrilege to show these forms.
- Where does the narrative of tolerance come from, who is promoting it, and why?
The Na'aran synagogue was originally discovered when a Turkish shell fell here during World War I in 1918 and created a small crater in the ground, exposing the synagogue’s Mosaic floor.
What we see in the mosaic floor is interesting. There is an Aramaic inscription naming and honoring the Jewish donors and the community which built the synagogue. For instance, it says in one place:
"Shall be remembered Binyamin son of Yossa the donor, and all who maintain and contribute or has given to this holy place either gold or silver or anything of their own, Amen"
Also, we see the zodiac, which is not distinctly Jewish, rather it is Greek influence, but it is not uncommon in synagogues of the 6th century. The traditional Holy Ark and the Menorah (lamp) are also depicted.
We stop next at Hisham's Palace, the Chaliph's winter home during the Umayyad period. In it we found two mosques, but we don't know if the Jericho population was all converted to Islam at that early time in the 8th century. Possibly these mosques were for noble visitors to the palace.
- Is it possible that there are other ancient mosques yet to be discovered in this area?
The Palestinian tourism authority manages this site, but many of its treasures were taken to the Rockefeller Museum, in East Jerusalem, by the British, in the 1930's. That "museum of Palestinian archaeology" is now maintained as a branch of the Israel Museum.
Walid II was made governor of Ard Cana'an (ارض كنعان) and later he became the Caliph. The 747 earthquake put an end to construction before the palace was complete. We know this because archaeologists found building material left behind at the site. The Roman-Style baths, however, were already active, as ashes were discovered in the furnaces.
Surprisingly, we learned that statues were found here too, and stucco of exposed female figures, a form of decoration which is considered forbidden in many Muslim spaces today. These images are only found at the Rockefeller Museum today, not at the palace. Perhaps, we speculate, the female figure was allowed in Islam, or maybe the Caliph didn't meet the religious standard.
Most impressive is the mosaic floor of the palace. In one location we see the tree of life, with two gazelles eating peacefully from the right-hand side of the tree. On the tree's left side is a lion attacking a gazelle. The most popular interpretation, among many possible readings of the image, is that the Caliph wished to display his power over all other faiths, like a lion, while those who accept his command can enjoy tranquility, like the two gazelles.
An Israeli recalled two gazelles in the mosaic floor at Na'aran, which could either be a coincidence, or a recurrence of local art-style, or perhaps a subtle message from the Muslim ruler towards Jewish subjects.
In any event, the fact that Jericho exhibits grand structures since pre-historic times, including the highly expensive and high quality mosaic floors, is testimony to the strength and organization of local communities, their developed culture and art forms, their architectural capabilities and their wish to be remembered by future generations. We are happy to do our bit in remembering them and honoring their achievements.
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