Ghosts of an ancient Syrian synagogue

 Apamea’s famous colonnade has been disfigured by potholes and suffered looting in the civil war (photo: Adam Blitz)

One of the casualties of the Syrian civil war has been the city of Apamea, founded built by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Writing in the Times of Israel, Adam Blitz tells the story of its short-lived 4th century synagogue, a victim of Christian antisemitism, and built over by several churches.

In
its day, the synagogue at Apamea was very much part of the urban
landscape. As with the monumental synagogue at Sardis which was
incorporated into a bath-gymnasium complex, the Apamean house of prayer
was conspicuous to even the most inexperienced eye. It sat midway,
immediately off the Cardo or Grande Colonnade: the main
North-South axis upon which the Hellenistic and the Roman city were
built. In the other direction on the Decumanus, eastwards and perpendicular to the Cardo,
the synagogue could be found on the street descending from the great
theatre in the shadow of the hill-top citadel which Pompey had razed
long ago.

Inside
the synagogue was a large mosaic floor, approximately 120 metres
square, sub-divided into geometric carpets and inscribed panels.

 Unlike
their fellow brethren at Dura Europoswith
its murals emblazoned with scenes of the patriarchs, the Apamean Jews
adhered to the Second Commandment with its prohibition against
representation. Nevertheless, strictures aside, these individuals failed
to make any reference to their god whatsoever. Were it not for the
smallest of Menorah, there would be nothing to distinguish the mosaic
floor from that of an imperial villa save the twenty dedicatory
inscriptions.

In
one such inscription the same Iiasios would boast to his Fourth Century
congregants that he “made the entrance of the mosaic (for) 150 feet (in
the) Year 703 Audynaios (December) 7 a blessing to all.” Women too left
their mark. Mnemosyne’s handmaidens featured prominently as wives in
three conjugal inscriptions and as women in their own right. Nine
donations testify to this fact. Abrosia, Domnina, Eupithis, Diogenesis, Saprika all lent their names to posterity as did Alexandria who “having made a vow made a 100 feet for salvation of all her own.”

Donor inscription on the well-preserved synagogue floor, now in the Damascus Museum

All
of the archaeological evidence points to the deliberate construction of
the first of several churches built immediately over the synagogue
floor.  This had the effect of sealing it from the then world which may
well have been the prime motivation: an act of damnatio memoriae on the part of Church authorities to rid Apamea of its Jewish past and inter Mnemosyne*.

Jean
Charles-Balty, the former director of excavations at the site, dates
the first phase of the Atrium Church to approximately 415-420 CE. In
which case, the synagogue existed for barely twenty years before its
demise.

 This date corresponds closely with the textual evidence for the
resurgence of anti-Semitism at Immestar (present day Qinnasrin), 25 kilometres South West of Aleppo and in close proximity to Apamea.  Socrates Scholasticus  writing in his Historia Ecclesiastica  during
the reign of the Emperor Theodosius the Second [305-435 CE],  reveals 
that  “at a place named Immestar situated between Chalcis [ad Bellum]
and Antioch in Syria…[the Jews] impelled by drunkenness, were guilty of
scoffing at Christians and even Christ”. He then recounts the sanction
for the alleged murder of a Christian child by the Jews.

The emperors ordered their men “to find and punish the delinquents. And thus Jewish inhabitants of this place paid the penalty for wickedness.

”Whether
the penalty resulted in destruction of a sacred site at Immestar or
Apamea we cannot say for certain. However we do know that that, near and
far, the synagogues at Antioch, north of Apamea, and Rabbat Moab in the
Jordan were destroyed within a few years of each other; and that in 423
CE the Emperor Theodosius the Second was petitioned not to re-build the
Antiochene synagogue. (…)

Today
Apamea is one of the many “Dead Cities” of northern Syria. It has yet
to be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains on the
Tentative List as it has done for the past fifteen years.

Read article in full

*Goddess of Memory

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