Saturday, 27 June 2020

The Ancient Synagogue of Beit Alpha

The same day that we visited the incredible Beit She'an National Park we also managed to squeeze in a stop at the ancient synagogue of Beit Alpha. The synagogue contains an almost intact mosaic floor from the 6th century CE, the Byzantine era. The mosaic was discovered in 1928 when members of nearby Kibbutz Hefzibah were digging irrigation channels for their fields and stumbled upon the mosaic floor of the synagogue. Excavations led by Eliezer Sukenik, the famous archaeologist who acquired the Dead Sea scrolls, began in 1929. Later excavations, in the early 1960s, exposed remains of some houses from the surrounding Jewish village. The houses have been covered over again, but the synagogue is now housed in a modern covered structure to protect it and is worth a visit.
The synagogue's excavation in 1929.
Photo credit: Boaz Eshkol

Beit Alpha was a small Roman/Byzantine agriculture village, situated at the northern foothills of Mount Gilboa. The village was established during the 1st century CE. The synagogue itself was built at the end of the 3rd century, while its mosaic floor was commissioned at the beginning of the 6th century. In 749 CE it was destroyed during a massive earthquake which levelled many of the towns and cities in the region. It remained in ruins until the 20th century.
Two Kibbutz settlements were established in 1922 around the ruins of the Roman village. The Kibbutz and synagogue on the east side were named after the nearby abandoned Arab village Khirbet Bait Ilfa - "Beit Alpha". The Kibbutz on the west was named "Hefzibah" after the farm adjacent to Hadera where the original settlers worked before they relocated. The name "Hefzibah" comes from the Bible, where G-d speaks about his love for Israel: "Nevermore shall you be called 'Forsaken,' nor shall your land be called 'Desolate;' But you shall be called 'I delight in her [Hefziba]'" (Isa. 62:4).
Photo source: Wikipedia
Photo source: Wikiwand

The ancient synagogue of Beit Alpha is oriented southwards, toward Jerusalem, and consists of a courtyard, corridor and rectangular prayer hall. The prayer hall is divided by two rows of stone-built pillars into a central nave and two side aisles. The pillars probably supported the arches and the gabled roof of the synagogue. Scholars assume that there was a second storey above the two aisles, serving as a women's gallery.
The colourful mosaic floor covers the central nave and is divided into three different panels, all enclosed by a decorated band with a variety of motifs: geometric patterns, fruit, birds and animals. The panels depict, from north to south:
A scene from the Biblical story of the binding of Isaac, above, top. On the right is an altar with flames rising from it. Abraham stands next to it, one hand holding his son Isaac and the other a long knife. The names of Abraham and Isaac are inscribed above the figures.
Under the scene are two inscriptions flanked by a lion and a bull facing each other, one in Aramaic and one in Greek, above. The lower Aramaic inscription states that the mosaic floor was laid during the reign of Emperor Justin (probably Justin I, 518-527 CE) and that the cost was covered by donations from members of the community. The upper Greek inscription reads: May the craftsmen who carried out this work, Marianos and his son Hanina, be held in remembrance. These craftsmen are also listed as the mosaic craftsmen of the nearby Beit She'an synagogue.
A zodiac, above, appears in the central panel. These astrological signs were widely used as decorative elements in both churches and synagogues of the Byzantine period. The twelve signs are arranged in a circle and accompanied by their Hebrew names. In the centre of the zodiac, the sun god Helios is driving his horse drawn chariot across the sky. The four seasons appear in the corners of the panel in the form of busts of winged women wearing jewels; they are inscribed with the Hebrew months initiating each season: Nisan (spring), Tammuz (summer), Tishri (autumn) and Tevet (winter).

The Holy Ark, above, is depicted with a gabled roof and behind a curtain and is protected on both sides by two ostriches and heraldic lions. The eternal flame is in the centre. On either side of the ark is a lit menorah (candelabrum) and traditional Jewish ritual objects such as the shofar (ram's horn), lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron). This design is also common to other ancient synagogues in the region.
An apse, a rounded raised recess 2.4 metres deep, was built into the southern wall of the synagogue and served as the bimah (raised platform) on which the Holy Ark stood. There are three steps leading up from the floor. At a later time another bimah in the shape of a bench was added between two southern pillars on the eastern side of the prayer hall. A shallow depression lined with stones below the floor of the bimah probably served as the synagogue's treasury. When opened during the excavations it contained 36 Byzantine bronze coins which had been minted between the 4th and 6th centuries.

* This post has been shared on All Seasons, The Good. The Random. The Fun., Wordless Wednesday (on Tuesday), Sharon's Souvenirs, Our World Tuesday, Tuesday's Treasures, Pictorial Tuesday, Travel Tuesday and My Corner of the World.

Monday, 22 June 2020

22 Years

Mister Handmade in Israel and I recently celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary. Of course I made him a card. This is what I made for him last year and this was the card that marked our 20th anniversary. This year's card had a big number 22 embellished with some flowers and a heart on it. The word anniversary surrounds the circular design. I cut the card out of white stock and added a green paper inlay because green is the traditional colour for the 22nd anniversary.
This year, due to the coronavirus, there was no special anniversary breakfast or dinner. Instead we took a short walk up the new kilometre-long pedestrianised part of our new city centre and picked up some takeaway pasta from a place that has recently opened. A romantic candlelight dinner it wasn't, but it was tasty all the same! 

Thursday, 18 June 2020


Polly celebrated her birthday whilst under lockdown. Her husband contacted me with a request for several cards. He was keen for his card to have a portrait of his wife on it. I have made cards for most of the family over the years and, though I can't always promise to create an exact likeness, some of them have been pretty close! This was one favourite and this another.
We discussed what should be on Polly's card and decided to show her making challaha special bread in Jewish cuisine, usually braided and typically eaten on ceremonial occasions such as Shabbat and major Jewish holidays. Polly is a wonderful baker and cook. I added the logo of the school where she is Dean of Students and a couple of balloons too.
It was a pretty good representation of Polly, if I say so myself!
Polly's mum lives in the UK but she had a peek in my Etsy shop to find a card for her daughter. She chose this design, which I first created back in 2012. My rather girly card was originally created for a friend's birthday and I thoroughly enjoyed going a little overboard crafting a sweet little bird, flowers and balloons in a pretty colour scheme of pinks, yellows and blues.
This card is available in my shop and if you would like me to customise it with a particular name or greeting, simply let me know by email or Etsy message.
I also made a couple of cards from Polly's sons. I know that she is keen on my papercut designs, so decided that one had to be a papercut design with the word "Ima" on it. Ima (pronounced Ee-Ma) means mother in Hebrew.
You can see the whole collection, above. Polly loved them.


Monday, 15 June 2020

A Teacher and Two Soldiers

A new customer contacted me with a request for a birthday card for her husband. He is a teacher and a Leeds United supporter, she told me, and he reads kodesh books (religious texts) all the time.
I asked my customer about her husband's favourite author and she mentioned a scholar called Professor James Kugel. I have shown her husband with one of Kugel's books in his hand and another tucked under his arm. He is wearing a Leeds United shirt and his beloved football team's badge is behind him. Finally I included a blackboard and a small pile of books to represent his profession. "Happy Birthday" has been chalked on the board.
My customer's initial reaction to the card was "It's wicked!" She later wrote that "My husband totally loved your card! He couldn't get over it!"
I heard from the same customer again shortly afterwards. "Could I put in another order for a card?" she asked me. This time she wanted a birthday card for her son who was turning 23. He is a Deputy Company Commander in the Israeli Armoured Corps (חטיבה 7) and the army is his whole life, she wrote.
I have shown the birthday boy in his olive green uniform. The pin representing the symbol of his corps can be seen on his black beret. He has a little silver Volkswagen Polo that he's very fond of, so I included that in the background as well. He is holding a bottle of his favourite beer.
The Hebrew greeting on the cards says "Happy 23rd birthday to the best Deputy Company Commander in Tzahal!" (The Israel Defence Forces are commonly known in Israel by the Hebrew acronym Tzahal צה״ל)
"We love it!" my customer wrote to me.
Eitan has received many cards of mine over the years. This is one of my favourites. Like many soldiers during the time of the coronavirus pandemic, he was stuck in the army over his birthday and for quite some time afterwards. Mum wanted a card anyway so that she could send it to him by whatsapp!
She requested a headshot of her soldier son wearing his black beret and showing his sergeant's stripes on his sleeve. She also asked me to add his unit's insignia on the card.
The Hebrew greeting says "Happy 20th Birthday Sergeant Eitan".
"He really liked his birthday card" mum later told me. As planned, she sent a photograph of it to Eitan on whatsapp and then it was waiting for him to open when he eventually got home.

Monday, 8 June 2020

Beit She'an National Park

Back in January we were thrilled to hear that the lovely couple who run the bed and breakfast agrotourism in Cyprus, where we stayed for part of our trip in 2016, were coming to Israel. They were going to be based for some of the time at Neve Eitan, a kibbutz in the Beit She'an Valley in northern Israel. A quick google told me that they were very near to the Beit She'an National Park so, when they asked if we could meet, I suggested a visit there. Summer in Beit She'an is notoriously hot and dry and so it is an area we have generally avoided when travelling north during school holidays. January was the perfect time to visit and, even though it had been raining non-stop for days, we were lucky and spent a beautiful winter's day with our friends.
Beit She'an National Park houses the spectacular ruins of the Roman and Byzantine city of Beit She'an. Rising above the ruins is the high mound, or tel, on which Biblical Beit She'an stood. The name shean possibly relates to the modern word sheannanut, meaning tranquillity. Thus Beit She'an could mean "House of Tranquillity." Another thought is that Shean was probably the name of an ancient god, so the name means "House of Shean," and probably refers to an ancient temple to the god Shean which stood on the site. Whatever the meaning, Beit She'an has a long and fascinating past and we had a wonderful time exploring the Roman public baths, a 7,000-seat theatre, a marketplace and other well-preserved structures.
People made their homes on Beit She'an tel as long ago as the 5th millennium BCE. In the late Canaanite period (16th - 12th centuries BCE) the Egyptians ruled the area and the entire land of Israel. The Philistines also ruled the city for a time and later, in 732 BCE, the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III destroyed Beit She'an in a campaign of war against the Kingdom of Israel.
During the Hellenistic period (4th century BCE), new settlers established a polis, or city-state, in Beit She'an. They adorned the streets with columns, temples, theatres, markets, bathhouses and fountains. The city was called Nysa-Scythopolis in Greek. In 63 BCE, after a brief period of Hasmonean rule, the city was conquered by the Romans. It became home to 30,000 to 40,000 citizens and magnificent public buildings were constructed in the prosperous city.
During the Byzantine period too, when the state religion was Christianity, Beit She'an continued to flourish. The city covered an area of 1,300 dunams and was home to more than 40,000 residents. It was known as an excellent agricultural area and noted for the production of good quality linen fabrics.
After the Arab conquest in the first half of the 7th century Beit She'an lost its regional importance and in 749 the city was completely destroyed by a powerful earthquake. Beit She'an became a rural settlement and during the Crusader period a fortress was built there, to the east of the ruined amphitheatre, making use of many of its building stones.
After the founding of the State of Israel, Beit She'an was reestablished and began to grow. The ruins, which are the pride of the city, have undergone major restoration and reconstruction, allowing special events and performances to take place in the ancient streets and theatre.
One of the most impressive structures at Beit She'an is the Roman theatre, above, the first place to visit once you have entered the park. It was built at the end of the 2nd century CE though only the lowermost block of seats, with 23 rows, has survived intact. Today we can see about 2,000 seats but the original construction was three times higher!
The Western bathhouse, below, was used during the Byzantine period. Inside the bathhouse were eight halls and four open bathing pools surrounded by columns. Fountains stood between the pools. The bathhouse had its own underfloor heating system, a hypocaust. Water was heated using fire and injected inside, making the rooms above very hot.
The reconstructed Palladius Street is a 150 metre long colonnaded street. Along the length of the street are the remains of columns and impressive buildings. The street was named after the governor who built the portico alongside it. The name appears in an inscription found in the street. This was a commercial street and there were shops in the portico. The street is straight, allowing for better wind circulation throughout the city, and there are slopes on each side of it for drainage.
Nearby are the ruins of a large Roman temple. The four huge columns of its facade, 9.5 metres high and weighing 25 tons each, collapsed in the 749 earthquake and since then have remained lying on the ground where they fell. The temple is in a central place, at the main intersection of streets in Beit She'an, yet it is not known who was worshipped there.
We climbed a steep flight of stairs to the top of Tel Beit She'an. Some twenty settlement strata have been uncovered, the most ancient dates from the 5th millennium BCE and the most recent from medieval times. From the top of the tel there is a spectacular view of Beit She'an and the surrounding area.
Back at the bottom we walked along Sylvanus Street, originally a Roman road flanked on either side by a monumental colonnade, below. On either side of the street are the ruins of shops and a large pool. During the Byzantine period the Roman road was overlaid by a new street.
Another large bathhouse, built during the Roman period, has been partially uncovered between Sylvanus Street and the theatre and next to the bathhouse are the public lavatories, below, built for the benefit of theatre visitors and bathhouse users. As you can see in the picture, there is a small courtyard with columns. That was the waiting area. If there were no empty places, people waited and sometimes used this area to close deals. Long marble plinths were set against the walls of the courtyard, creating 57 toilet seats. Under the seats were sewage channels through which water flowed, carrying the waste to the municipal drainage system. The first channel is straight beneath the sitting places. The second much narrower one is in front of the sitting places and was used for washing hands. There was running water at all times.
Then it was back to the theatre, ending our circular tour of the park. Beit She'an National Park is without doubt the best preserved ancient Roman city in Israel and definitely worth a visit, although what you see today is only a small part of the city. Archaeological studies show that there is still more underground than discovered. Back in December 2018 two Roman statues made of local limestone were discovered by a Beit She'an resident who took a stroll north of the ancient tel and noticed the top of a head of one of the statues (it was probably peeking through after the rains washed the ground around it). Restoration and digging continues to this day, so a visit to the park every few years will always bring something new.