Monumental synagogue emerges from ancient ruins in Turkey

MANISA, Turkey – A museum in western Turkey will soon display artifacts from the largest known synagogue of the ancient world, fully uncovered after six decades of American-led excavations at what was once the seat of power of the fabulously wealthy king Croesus.

The monumental edifice emerged from the ruins of the ancient city of Sardis, capital of the Lydian Empire in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, when its kings, including King Croesus, ruled western Anatolia and struck the world’s first coins.

Excavations at the site – near the town of Salihli in the province of Manisa – have unearthed remains from different eras, including part of the town’s famous citadel and a gold refinery from the Lydian period, a huge Ionic temple dedicated to Artemis and a Roman bath-gym complex.

The synagogue, 120 meters long and 18 meters wide, was the center of Jewish religious life in Sardis during the late Roman period. Nearby, more recent Jewish cemeteries testify to a long Jewish presence in the area. About 50,000 Jews lived in western Ottoman Anatolia in the mid-19th century, including 2,000 in and around Manisa. No Jewish population remains today after migration during World Wars I and II and after the establishment of Israel.

Jewish settlement in Sardis is believed to have begun in the 3rd century BC, when the Seleucid King Antiochus III encouraged Jews from Babylon and elsewhere to settle in the city. The Seleucids retook Sardis after the death of Alexander the Great, who conquered the city from the Persians, the destroyers of the Lydian Kingdom. Sardis was later absorbed into the Roman Empire. The 1st century historian Josephus Flavius ​​mentions Roman decrees confirming the religious rights of the Jews of Sardis. The synagogue, however, is believed to have been built much later, based on the discovery of 3rd-century coins beneath its floors.

Archaeological work at the site has been led by Professor Nicholas D. Cahill of the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2008.

Cahill told Al-Monitor that the synagogue has been fully uncovered and ongoing work is focused on restoration and repairs. “It is the largest synagogue of antiquity,” he said.

All the artifacts discovered in the synagogue will be put on display at the Manisa museum once it reopens next year after renovations, officials told Al-Monitor.

Among the major finds are fragments and images of menorahs, the multi-branched candelabras used in Jewish religious rituals. During restoration work, archaeologists found 89 Roman-era inscriptions naming the synagogue’s donors, Cahill said.

The synagogue’s elaborate floor mosaics also stand out, which cover an area of ​​around 1,400 square meters (15,000 sq ft) – a sign that a wealthy Jewish community lived in the city.

The ruins of the synagogue were discovered in 1962, when a team from Harvard-Cornell conducted the excavations, following the work of American archaeologists in the early 1900s. Among the objects restored in the 1960s is a fountain in the shape of an urn in the forecourt, where the faithful washed their hands before prayer. Clay pipes under the floor provided the water.

The synagogue and its surroundings were probably abandoned after the Sasanian sack of Sardis in the 7th century. By this time, the region had become a center of Christianity. The Seven Churches of Asia – the main churches of early Christianity as mentioned in the Book of Revelations – are all located in western Turkey. Three of them – the churches of Sardis, Thyatira and Philadelphia – are in the province of Manisa.

The Harvard Art Museums and Cornell University were the two main sponsors of the digs, Cahill said. Financial support also came from more than 100 groups and individuals, mostly from the United States, while professionals from Turkey and other countries assisted with archaeological work.

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