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Tomb Door Engraved with Menorah Discovered in Israel

The artifact tells the story of the three major religious groups that have occupied Tiberias over the centuries

(Katia Cytryn-Silverman)
smithsonian.com

The ancient city of Tiberias, founded some 2000 years ago in what is now Israel, was an important location for several historic peoples. It was inhabited by Jews during the Roman period and, over the course of several centuries, was conquered by the Byzantines, Arabs, Bedouins, Turks and Christian crusaders. As Ruth Schuster reports for Haaretz, archaeologists recently announced that they discovered an ancient tomb door that reflects several eras of Tiberias’ rich history.

Archaeologists discovered the basalt door in 2010, during an ongoing excavation project. The slab measures around 24 by 31 inches and is engraved with a seven-branched menorah, an enduring symbol of the Jewish faith. The artifact is in many ways consistent with Jewish tomb doors dating from about 150 to 350 A.D., according to Amanda Borschel-Dan of the Times of Israel. But in a report released to the press, Katia Cytryn-Silverman, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, notes that the discovery marks “the sole example of a tomb-door ornamented with such [a] symbol.” 

The tomb door was not found in its original location. Instead, archaeologists unearthed the stone at the site of an 8th-century mosque that was converted into a sugar factory complex during the Crusader era. While digging at the medieval factory, archaeologists discovered that the menorah-ornamented door had been used as the top step of a staircase leading to a small room. They surmised that the door had been taken from the ruins of the abandoned mosque, which had been damaged after an earthquake shook the city in 1068. During its heyday, the mosque had boasted rows of impressive pillars, some of which had been built on foundations made of Jewish basalt tomb doors.

The menorah-adorned stone, in other words, went through three distinct phases of use: first as a Jewish tomb door, then as a pillar foundation for the 8th-century mosque and finally as a stair in the crusader complex. In its own way, this single artifact tells the story of the three major religious groups that have occupied Tiberias over the centuries.

Tiberias became an important center of Jewish life after 70 A.D., when a bitter revolt against Roman rule culminated in the exile of Jews from Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin, or the ancient Jewish court system, moved to the city at the end of the second century. The Jerusalem Talmud, an authoritative rabbinic text, was compiled there during the 4th century.

Following a period of Byzantine rule, the city was conquered by Arabs in 635 “without violence,” Cytryn-Silverman writes in her report, and the buildings of the city were left standing. The majority of Tiberias’ residents continued to be made up of Jews and Christians. In the 8th century, the Umayyad Muslims built a grandiose mosque in Tiberias, repurposing Jewish tomb doors from a cemetery that had likely fallen out of use, according to Cytryn-Silverman.

“The visitor to the mosque would not see the doors,” she writes, “and only once the mosque got damaged was their beauty once again revealed.”

It is possible that the doors caught the eye of the crusaders, who successfully captured modern-day Israel in 1099. Under its new Christian authorities, the center of Tiberias was moved north, and the derelict mosque now lay on the fringes of the city. The Crusaders chose this site to build a complex associated with the region’s sugar industry, which proliferated during the Crusader period, according to Daniel K. Eisenbud of the Jerusalem Post. It is not entirely clear if the complex was used as a production factory or distribution center.

Archaeologists also don’t know precisely why Tiberias’ medieval-era Christians chose to repurpose and display a stone that was so clearly marked with a Jewish symbol. “Was this a positive or negative appropriation of the menorah?” Cytryn-Silverman asks in her report. “Were they stepping on [it on] purpose? Did the room serve a special function? Were the inhabitants of the house actually aware of [the door’s] importance? Was this just a beautiful ornamented piece? While these questions are still hard to answer, the very use at this place, and our eventual exposure, revived its long trajectory, going from Jewish hands, to Muslim, and then to Christian owners.”

Conservators are working to preserve this unique artifact, but a few weeks ago, experts decided to display the door at Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology. It went on view just in time for Hanukah, “as a good wish for Hannukah and for the Holiday Season,” Cytryn-Silverman writes, “and as a good reminder of our rich multi-cultural heritage.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer is based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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