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Politics

Dispute Whether Ancient Israeli Synagogue Mosaic Shows Alexander

September 21, 2016

Excavation of an ancient synagogue in northern Israel has uncovered what looks like a portrait of Alexander the Great meeting a Jewish high priest more than 2,300 years ago.

“The quality of the mosaic is extraordinary, the fact that it may depict a meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest is also amazing,” Excavation Director and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Professor Jodi Magness told Fox News.

But other experts doubt it was Alexander. Art historian Karen Britt of Western Carolina University, who is the excavation’s mosaics specialist, said she believes it’s really Seleucid King Antiochus VII according to National Geographic.

Antiochus VII led a Seleucid attack on Jerusalem in 132 B.C. and Britt believes the mosaic shows him negotiating a truce with Jewish high priest and Judean leader John Hyrcanus I, and not Alexander.

“We came to the conclusion that the story being depicted in the mosaic simply does not correspond to the Alexander traditions,” Ra‘anan Boustan, an Associate History Professor at UCLA, said in an email to FoxNews.com.

It was found on the floor of the Fifth-Century synagogue in Huqoq and was said to be the first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue.

Magness said the mosaic was divided into three horizontal strips, known as registers, which are read from bottom to top.

The top register, which is the largest, shows a meeting between two male figures that are bigger than the other figures portrayed, highlighting their importance, adding to the millennia-old mystique surrounding Alexander.

One figure, an elderly bearded man dressed all in white, is believed to be a Jewish high priest. Magness said the other younger figure, also bearded, is dressed in an elaborate military outfit and has the trappings of a king, such as a diadem, or headband that indicates sovereignty, and a purple cloak.

“He is accompanied by all sorts of figures that indicate that he is a Greek king – there’s a Greek military formation next to him, there are battle elephants,” Magness said.

“These are all things that are associated with the Greek kings from the time of Alexander the Great on,” she told Fox.

But she added despite the imagery that it’s unlikely any such meeting ever took place. “This was a story that was circulated a lot in antiquity,” she said.

“In the centuries following Alexander the Great’s death when he became so famous that he became ‘the Great,’ the Jews sought to associate themselves with Alexander and stories began to circulate about a meeting like this having taken place.”

Boustan, who worked on the project with Britt, said the defeated army depicted in part of the mosaic does not fit the history of Alexander the Great’s early conquests in the Middle East.

“Right there in an impressive range of ancient sources, both Jewish and non-Jewish, we found a story about the siege of Jerusalem by a later Seleucid king named Antiochus VII Sidetes, who battled with and ultimately made peace with one of the most famous and admired Jewish leaders of the Hellenistic period, the high priest John Hyrcanus,” he wrote. “Not only did the story told in the sources match the details of the mosaic, but text and art both seemed to capture the spirit of the encounter between Jew and Greek, which was characterized by tension as well as mutual respect.”

The Huqoq Excavation Project involves the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Baylor University, Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto.

The mosaic allegedly depicting Alexander the Great was excavated in stages between 2013 and 2015.

“Only a portion of it had been released to the public previously,” Magness told FoxNews.com. “This is the first time that an image of the entire mosaic has been released.”

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation and all the excavated areas have been backfilled, Magness said. “We hope that the site will be developed for tourism after the excavations end,” she added.

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