The Synagogue

Introduction

The monumental synagogue was the center of Jewish religious life at Sardis during the Late Roman period. Discovered in 1962, the building and its decorations have been partly restored (figs. 1, 2, 3).

The synagogue was entered from the east into a colonnaded forecourt (figs. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). The forecourt was roofed around the sides but open to the sky in the center (figs. 10, 11). Beyond is the main hall of assembly, over 50 m long and large enough to hold nearly a thousand people (figs. 12, 13). Massive stone piers supported the roof of the main hall at a height of about 14 m above the floor.

The synagogue occupied the corner of the Roman bath-gymnasium, converting part of this public building into a Jewish house of worship (fig. 2). The mosaic floors, furnishings, and marble wall decorations were installed at different times; most of those which remain are from the 4th and 5th centuries. The synagogue was abandoned along with much of the rest of the city in the early seventh century, reflecting a general trend in Western Anatolia.

  • Fig. 1

    Plan of Sardis. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 2

    Plan of the Bath-Gymnasium Complex. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 3

    View of the Synagogue during excavation. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 4

    Phase plan of the Synagogue. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 5

    State plan of the Synagogue. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 6

    Isometric restoration drawing of the Synagogue. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 7

    Section of the Synagogue. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 8

    Model of the Synagogue. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 9

    Aerial view of the Synagogue and Bath-Gymnasium Complex (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 10

    View of Forecourt of Synagogue. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 11

    Reconstruction drawing of the Forecourt. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 12

    View of the Main Hall of Synagogue. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 13

    Reconstruction drawing of the Main Hall. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Wall Decoration in the Forecourt

The forecourt walls were originally covered with painted plaster; a small area of the plaster has been left exposed. The marble decoration was added later, probably in the 5th century. Some of the lower marble slabs were found in place, still attached to the walls. Moldings, capitals, and pieces of the arched frieze depicting urns and doves had fallen nearby. The frieze, which showed traces of ancient red coloring, is partially restored (fig. 14).

  • Fig. 14

    Reconstructed frieze on the north wall of the Forecourt. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Fountain

The large krater or urn at the center of the forecourt, a replica of the marble original, was a fountain at which congregants washed their hands before prayer (fig. 15, 16). Water was supplied by clay pipes below the floor. An ingenious valve controlled the water flow. The surrounding pool was originally paved with flat stones, probably marble.

  • Fig. 15

    Fountain in Forecourt. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 16

    Conservation of the fountain. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Wall Decoration in the Main Hall

In the main hall, the installation of marble wall decorations began in the 4th century. The work took several generations to complete. The donors’ names are inscribed in Greek on marble plaques; one such donor inscription is restored (figs. 17, 18). The inscription records: “I with my wife Regina and our children (in fulfillment of a vow) executed from the gifts of almighty God all the skoutlosis of the (section of wall?) and the painting (of the ceiling or upper wall).” Many of the donors held the honorary title “citizen of Sardis.” Several donors are identified as city councilors or holders of other government offices.

  • Fig. 17

    Restored skoutlosis (opus sectile) on the south wall of the Main Hall. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 18

    Inscription recording the dedication of marble wall decoration (skoutlosis) and painting, by someone together with his wife Regina and their children (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Inlay Panels

Hundreds of pieces of cut marble, in many colors, were found during excavations. These pieces made up inlay panels (skoutlosis) for the wall decoration. The geometric patterns are similar to patterns in the floor mosaics. Pieces for floral designs and representations of a camel, birds, and fish were also found. New inlay pieces were used in the restoration (fig. 17).

  • Fig. 17

    Restored skoutlosis (opus sectile) on the south wall of the Main Hall. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Shrines

Excavations uncovered platforms for two shrines flanking the center door to the main hall (fig. 19, 20). Upper parts of both shrines were found nearby. These shrines must have housed the Torah, the Old Testament scrolls which constitute Jewish law. (The original, spirally-fluted columns of the northern shrine were badly shattered and were replaced in the restoration).

  • Fig. 19

    Overview of the Main Hall. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 20

    View of shrines in the Main Hall. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Tables and Lions

Torah scrolls probably were carried in ceremony from the shrines at the opposite end of the hall and read from a huge marble table (figs. 21, 22). The table and the lions which stand guard are older than the synagogue itself; they were moved from their original locations and reused here.

  • Fig. 21

    Table and lions, as discovered, 1963. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 22

    Table and lions, restored. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Bema or Baldachin?

The mosaic inscription at the center of the main hall was the gift of a “priest and teacher of wisdom.” Stone bases around this panel supported four thin pillars or columns, probably marking the place from which the teacher taught (fig. 23).

  • Fig. 23

    View of bema or baldachin in the Main Hall. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Apse and Benches

The curved wall of the apse was originally pierced by three niches and two vaulted passageways. The openings were later blocked and the wall then covered with bands of white and colored marble. Above, the apse probably was topped by a half-dome. Three tiers of marble-covered benches within the apse perhaps served as seats for the synagogue elders (figs. 24, 25).

The original semicircular mosaic within the apse is in the Manisa museum. It was a 4th century gift of two brothers, Stratoneikianos and Synphoros Flavius, whose names are inscribed in the central wreath (figs. 26, 27). Vines grow from an urn similar to the forecourt fountain. Flanking peacocks were effaced in antiquity.

  • Fig. 24

    View of apse and benches as discovered, 1963. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 25

    View of apse and benches as restored, 1973. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 26

    Overview of apse mosaic. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 27

    Detail of mosaic in apse of the Synagogue. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Mosaics, Furnishings and Other Finds from the Synagogue

Floor mosaics constitute the most extensive part of the Synagogue’s decoration and cover a total area of some 1400 sq m. Their arrangement reflects the architecture of the main hall, with large rectangular panels occupying the seven structural bays and side panels set between adjacent piers (fig. 28). Brief inscriptions naming individual donors originally lay at the center of the large panels (figs. 29, 30). The mosaics in the forecourt consist of rectangular panels spanning the width of the four porticoes (fig. 31). Apart from the vase and peacocks in the apse, the mosaics are exclusively geometric in design, with small polychrome tesserae forming complex interlocking patterns. Decorative motifs, like the overall arrangement, are known elsewhere at Sardis and at other sites in buildings of the 4th-6th centuries.

 

The menorah or multi-branched candelabrum was an important part of the Synagogue’s interior furnishings. Several images of menorahs were found in the main hall. The largest is a rectangular relief panel of a menorah with flanking lulav and shofar, which may have belonged to a low barrier or screen (fig. 32). Two fragments of fine white marble once belonged to a freestanding menorah whose segmented branches were joined by openwork tendrils. Another freestanding marble menorah is better preserved and may have stood nearly 1 m high. Its seven thick branches support an incised crossbar with an inscription identifying Socrates, perhaps the name the donor (figs. 33, 34).

  • Fig. 28

    Plan of mosaic pavements in the Synagogue. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 29

    Marble plaque with inscription. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 30

    Marble plaque with inscription in Hebrew. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 31

    Mosaics in Forecourt. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 32

    Menorah plaque from the Synagogue. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 33

    Menorah from the Synagogue, dedicated by Socrates. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 34

    Drawing of a menorah from the Synagogue. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Spolia from the Synagogue

The Synagogue contained a remarkable number of reused blocks, inscriptions, and sculptures. Some of these were reused simply as building material; other items, however, were deliberately displayed in the building. Among the spolia are a number of sculptures and blocks that originate in the sanctuary of Cybele, the indigenous Lydian goddess. Most definitive are a series of marble blocks built into the piers, which belonged to the antae of a temple (figs. 36, 37). A series of letters from the Hellenistic king Antiochus III, his wife Laodice, and decrees of the Sardians were inscribed on these blocks; among the texts is the resolution that the letters should be inscribed “upon the parastades [i.e. antae, the ends of the temple walls] of the temple that is in the sanctuary of the Mother,” positively identifying the source of these blocks as the most famous temple of Lydian Sardis. The inscriptions date to 213 BC; the temple to which they belonged probably dates to the fourth or earlier third century. Other sculptures and artifacts can be plausibly associated with this sanctuary as well, including a marble temple model showing Cybele (LATW, No. 34, R2, No. 7; fig. 38), a relief showing Cybele, Artemis, and two worshippers (LATW, No. 35; R2, No. 20; figs. 39, 40), a monumental inscription in an unknown Anatolian language (fig. 41), and a series of Archaic lions, originally perhaps associated with Cybele, and here perhaps repurposed to refer to the Lions of Judah (fig. 42).

  • Fig. 36

    Collapsed blocks during excavation of the Synagogue, including reused and inscribed blocks from the Metroon at Sardis, 1963. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 37

    Inscribed block from the Metroon at Sardis, from the Synagogue. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 38

    Marble temple model showing Cybele (No. 34), reused in the Synagogue. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 39

    Two Goddesses relief, reused in the Synagogue, as discovered. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 40

    Relief showing two goddesses and worshippers (No. 35). (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 41

    Inscription in an unknown Anatolian language, reused in the Synagogue, as discovered, 1963. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 42

    Lions. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Conserving and Restoring the Synagogue

When it was excavated in the 1960s, the Synagogue was a ruin, too fragile to survive exposure to the weather or visitors. In 1965, therefore, the Sardis Expedition and the Turkish Ministry of Education decided to conserve and partially restore the Synagogue. This photograph from 1963 shows Prof. David Mitten, discoverer and excavator of the Synagogue, in the fallen ruins (fig. 36).

Under the direction of New York University conservator Larry Majewski, workmen (here overseen by architect Halis Aydıntaşbaş and archaeologist Steve Crawford) lifted the mosaics from the Forecourt and Main Hall. They have glued fabric to the tesserae, and are carefully rolling them up to lift them from their original mortar backings (fig. 43).

They then re-set the mosaics in reinforced concrete panels, and replaced the panels in their original locations, here overseen by engineer Teoman Yalçınkaya. Inscribed mosaic panels were taken to the Manisa Archaeological and Ethnographical Museum, and replaced with painted casts (fig. 44).

The team rebuilt the walls and columns of the Synagogue, and reconstructed the colored marble wall decoration using mostly modern elements. Furnishings such as the krater in the Forecourt were taken to the Manisa Museum, and replaced with concrete casts (fig. 45). Completed in 1973, the restoration still gives a good impression of the original appearance of this lavish ancient building, and makes this one of the few buildings in the world where visitors can safely stand on ancient mosaics.

In the half-century since the Synagogue was restored, however, rain and weather have caused the concrete beddings of the mosaics to deteriorate. Despite repairs such as this, by conservators Kent Severson and Jennifer Kim, continued exposure would cause irreparable damage to the mosaics (fig. 46).

After extensive study and planning, therefore, a lightweight protective shelter was built in 2021, with the permission of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Commission for the Protection of Cultural Properties in Izmir (fig. 47).

The roof is set on the modern walls constructed in the 1960s, not on ancient remains. The concrete beam that supports the roof was hidden by a shell of stone and brick masonry to resemble the original Roman construction. The roof will protect the mosaics and prevent further damage, and also makes the space more comfortable for visitors and allows further cleaning and restoration in this magnificent and sacred ancient edifice (figs. 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55).

Construction was made possible by a generous gift from Patrick Healy, with the support of Harvard University. The roof was designed by architects Troy Thompson, Nathaniel Schlundt, and Philip Stinson, conservators Michael Morris and Hiroko Kariya, engineer Taner Kurtulus, and mastermind Teoman Yalçınkaya.

  • Fig. 36

    Collapsed blocks during excavation of the Synagogue, including reused and inscribed blocks from the Metroon at Sardis, 1963. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 43

    Workmen lifting the mosaics from the Main Hall under the direction of architect Halis Aydıntaşbaş and archaeologist Steve Crawford. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 44

    Resetting the mosaic panels in their original locations, under the direction of engineer Teoman Yalçınkaya. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 45

    Conservation of the fountain. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 46

    Conservator Kent Severson repairing mosaic panels in the Synagogue, 2009. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 47

    Conservator Michael Morris and architects Troy Thompson and Phil Stinson planning the new roof for the Synagogue, 2011. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 48

    Pouring the concrete beam for the Synagogue roof, 2021. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 49

    Workmen building a shell of brick and stone masonry to cover the concrete beam. They used bricks specially made to Roman specifications, and stone blocks from Eskişehir as used in the 1960s restoration of the building. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 50

    Workman Şaban Sönmez cutting Eskişehir stone to mimic the original Roman marble blocks. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 51

    Setting the trusses on the steel columns for the new Synagogue roof. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 52

    Teoman Yalçınkaya and Ümit Güngör overseeing the construction of the Synagogue roof. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 53

    Forecourt of the synagogue with new roof. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 54

    Main Hall of the synagogue with new roof. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 55

    The roof over the Synagogue completed, with the snow-covered Tmolus mountains in March, 2022. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Further Reading