Ancient Synagogue at Wadi Hamam


We are in Wadi Hamam with a very nice view of the ancient synagogue with Mount Nitai at the background. The ancient synagogue is located on a steep slope at the base of the cliffs of Mount Nitai, I would consider this to be quite dangerous. There is evidence of such rocks around the remains of the village, that have detached from the cliff and damaged the village. So, what was the logic in locating the village on the cliff slope. One of the opinions that I explain in detail in the video about Mount Nitai, refers to the steep escape route to the top of Mount Nitai, which leads to enter the compound protected by the wall at the top of the mountain. The escape route was worth taking the risk of the sliding rocks.

We do not know the name of this antient village, there are several options but none have a clear proof yet.

As for our location, we are 200 meters from the Bedouin village of Wadi Hamam or in short Hamam.  Arbel Cliffs are 700 meters south of us and they are just opposite of Mount Nitai cliffs, we are also located 2 km from the ancient village of Arbel, and 2 km from the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

The village here began in the days of the Second Temple and dates to the beginning of the first century BCE, which is the Hasmonean period. In addition to archaeological evidence, we have also external evidence such as the Book of the Hasmoneans and books by Josephus Flavius, where we learn that Judah Aristobulus son of John Hyrcanus from the Hasmonaean dynasty, conquers back the Galilee in 103-4 BCE among other places, so there is a good correlation to the establishment of this village at that time.

As we progress to the first century, there was an event of destruction sometime between the years 125 and 135 that most likely is related to the Bar Kochba revolt which was between 132 and 136, and probably there were also fighting events in Galilee related to the revolt.

As the camera zoom out, you can see previous layer of the village prior to this distraction. Following the destruction, the place was abandoned for several generations and clear signs of resettlement at the end of the second century or the beginning of the third century were found here. This village reached its peak in the third to mid-fourth century.

The synagogue in its current version belongs to the middle of the third century, and at this point its main features are the mosaic floor and a new array of benches made of basalt.

It is worth noting that the eastern wall is only 60cm wide compared to the western wall which is older and 90cm wide. The narrowing of the wall was made possible thanks to the use of a new construction technique of an outer shell of plane basalt stones placed around a concrete core mixed with small fieldstones, even then the local high-tech invented patents.

The seating arrangement in the hall is organized in two rows, along the west, north and east walls. If we consider 50cm sitting width per person, then the capacity of the benches reached 180 people, a respectable amount.

The axis of the synagogue is north-south, with the south facing Jerusalem, and the entrance was through a single opening in the south wall.

Notice the two pillars on the north side – their cross-section is heart-shaped – it is a common design in buildings with three columns and we saw the same heart shape in Arbel ancient synagogue.

The square room; it looks it was a study room based on the sitting arrangement. It has similar aspects to the study room in front of the ancient synagogue of Magdala not far from here.

The remains of the mosaic floor can be seen in the picture.

From the end of the fourth century, it can be seen that the repairs of the synagogue structure became less quality including large parts of the damaged mosaic floor were replaced with a simple plaster floor which indicates a declining community with limited resources.

The size of this village with its farmlands is estimated at about 30-40 dunams which is approximately 7.5 to 10 acres. It is considered a large village in the Roman period, since the average size for a village in the Galilee or Golan in that period was 20 dunams or five acres on average. So, what was the source of income for the village residents during the Mishnah and Talmud period, from the second century to the fifth century?

Two oil mills were found around us, one is right here. We see the crushing wheel, used to crush the olives. The crushing wheel rod was usually attached to a donkey so to rotate it.

After the crushing, a squeezing operation was performed using a separate system and there were two common methods for that, one is a direct pressure screw and the other is using a wooden beam and weights, as used here. Regarding the production process, we talked about the crushing stage – the outcome is crushed olives that have been transferred to what is called in Hebrew “akalim”, they are baskets braided with rope or fibers.

The baskets were smeared with the crushed olives, and they were placed on top of each other, and in this case the extraction to produce the oil was carried out with a heavy wooden beam that rested on the baskets, while the large stones here have been used as weights. In this operation, the baskets were used as a strainer.

The oil and water, dripped out while the kernels and other debris that got stuck between the olives, remained inside the baskets.

This waste was referred to in the Mishnah as “Gaffat” and was used for animal feeding and heating. The squeezed oil, leaked into an oil collection pit. After several days in which the oil floated above the water, the liquids were separated into different vessels.

Let’s discuss for a minute the income that such a village could generate in that period, almost 2000 years ago? I explain in details the economic aspect of producing oil in videos referring to my visit to various ancient synagogues in the Galilee and the Golan, yet let’s do a short exercise just to provide a high-level view of such a village income – so let’s assume that 24 dunams, or 6 acres of the village farmland were allocated to growing olives. Now, in each dunam there are say 36 trees that will yield on average 1.2 tons of olives, so 24 dunams or 6 acres will yield 28.8 tons of olives.

Using a common conversion ratio of 15%, we can produce approx. 4.3 tons of oil every year. This yielded an income which was significant to a village in those days.

Also, when producing a large amount of oil there is a need for tools to transport it, so no wonder there is evidence of extensive local pottery industry across the Galilee. Regarding numbers, it can be learned that in the Mishnah & Talmud period, revenues from oil production were double those produced from wine production in Israel. Also, for the same volume unit, the price of oil per liter was higher than the price of a liter of wine.

A similar situation existed in Rome itself. Diocletian’s Addict from the year 301- This is an economic plan of Diocletian whose goal was to fight inflation that increased in the Roman Empire throughout the third century, and set maximum prices for various products. From this addict we learn that a pint of regular oil cost twelve dinars, while the same amount of regular wine cost eight dinars.

At this point we have good explanation on why the residents of Galilee and Golan regions, invested in olive groves and on such a large scale.

Another important source of income was fishing. Many lead weights of fishing nets were discovered here, so the second source of income was fishing in the Sea of ​​Galilee, which is two kilometers away, a half-hour walk along the Arbel brook.

At the beginning of the Byzantine period, most of the houses in this village were abandoned, I am referring to the middle of the fourth century, and the village was completely abandoned at the end of the fourth century or at the beginning of the fifth century at the latest. It is worth noting that many sites in the region were abandoned during the same period. What could have caused this, so a leading cause is the earthquakes in the Galilee in 363. There were actually two earthquakes that occurred in the Galilee region on May18 and May19, 363, which among other places destroyed the city of Beit She’an and Susita.

We reached the end, and as usual, I have a question for you – Mount Nitai is named after which individual – the answer will appear at the end of the video.

How to get there?

Information Sources

  1. Book: Jews in Economics: Collection of Articles, Editor: Nahum Gross, Publisher: Zalman Shazar Center
  2. Qadmoniot: Magazine for the Antiquities of Eretz-Israel and Bible Lands No.149, Publisher: Israel Exploration Society Jerusalem

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