The Mosaic Pavements of Roman and Byzantine Zippori

Roman Period Mosaics

Byzantine Period Mosaics

Roman Period Mosaics

The Dionysiac mosaic was not only the first mosaic to be found in Zippori, but also the earliest chronologically. The JSP, a joint expedition of the Hebrew University and Duke University, uncovered a large private dwelling, south of the theater. The building is 45 X 23 m. and was built in the beginning of the third century CE. A courtyard surrounded on all four sides by peristyles was in the center of this building. A triclinium (reception hall) was located in the northern part of the building, which opened onto the courtyard via three doors. The other rooms were arranged around the triclinium and the courtyard. Many of the rooms were originally paved with mosaics featuring colorful geometric patterns, but the most important one was found in the central room in the building.

The mosaic found in the triclinium was designed as one colorful rectangular carpet, measuring 9 x 7 m., that covered almost the entire floor. The decorated part in the floor forms the letter T, a common arrangement in other triclinia found at other sites, throughout the Roman world.

Fifteen panels depicting various scenes from the life of Dionysos and his cult, decorate the central carpet of the floor. The panels were made according to the emblem tradition, with each image conceived as an independent frame. They were designed to be viewed from the margins of the mosaic. The figures and alternately, the scenes, are identified by Greek inscriptions.

A frame containing twenty-two medallions formed by intertwining acanthus leaves, surrounds the central carpet. Unclothed hunters and animals appear within the acanthus medallions. Each medallion depicts a hunting scene or struggle between animals with two or three figures. The medallion frame spreads from the centers of the two narrow sides of the mosaic, where the portraits of two beautiful women are incorporated. The face of the woman at the southern end has been partially destroyed, while the portrait in the central medallion of the northern end is preserved almost in its entirety.

The U-shaped strip to the south of the main carpet depicts a rural procession where people are preparing for Dionysian festivities. The uniqueness of this section is that it does not relate to the myth like the panels in the central carpet, but rather, presents the Dionysiac cult itself, as it was practiced throughout the empire during the Roman period. Despite the partial preservation of the mosaic floor in this section, it appears to be one continuous scene, beginning at the eastern and western ends of the "U" and extending to the middle of the southern end of the floor. In all probability, the damaged center of this strip depicts an altar with a statue of the god next to it, toward where the procession, on both sides, is facing, similar to a depiction on a glass vessel from the Morgan collection in N.Y.

During the lifetime of the building, a substantial section of the procession was replaced by a Nilotic scene, in which a group of naked youths is depicted hunting a bird and a crocodile.

The Dionysiac mosaic, which is dated to the early third century CE, has several parallels in Roman art. The richness of detail, the length of the depictions, and especially the combination of the myth and reality of Dionysian cult in one floor, make this mosaic unique, not only among the mosaics of Zippori, but among Roman art in general.

Another dwelling was uncovered in Zippori during the summer of 1995, west of the central colonnaded street of the city. At this stage of excavations, the plan of the building is not yet clear, but it is evident that a triclinium was located in its center. Additional rooms were located around the triclinium, which boasted a colorful mosaic. The panels of this mosaic were made according to the emblem tradition and were arranged similarly to those in the Dionysiac floor. A preliminary study of the floor dates it to the end of the third century, or even to the early fourth century CE.

The floor has four panels, arranged for viewing from the south. Orpheus, the divine musician, is depicted in the central carpet. He is sitting on a rock and playing a string instrument, calming wild animals and birds that surround him with his music. The three other panels depict scenes from daily life.

Some of the public buildings in Roman Zippori were also decorated with mosaics. The large building excavated by the South Florida team next to the main intersection of the cardo and the decumanos yield some figurative as well as geometric mosaics. Colorful mosaics with various geometrical and floral designs have been uncovered in some of the bath house rooms, located to the west of the cardo. It is hard to ascertain their precise date at this stage of excavation, but it seems that they should be dated later in the Roman period, or to the early Byzantine period.


Byzantine Period Mosaics

The sidewalks along the colonnaded streets were paved with mosaics featuring simple geometric designs. Several domiciles contain colorful mosaic floors. One of them was excavated on the northern slope of the hill, not far from the theater. A colorful mosaic floor with a geometrical design including flowers, fruits and various birds was found in one of its rooms. Another, more elaborate in terms of its art and architecture, was found next to the intersection of two streets at the southern part of the city, close to the Nile building (see next section). Its rooms were paved with mosaics, one of which is badly damaged but originally had figurative scenes.

As opposed to the Roman period, the most important mosaics from the Byzantine period, were found in the public buildings which were excavated at the site.

The Nile Festival Building is the largest, and one of the most impressive structures excavated in Zippori. The building is located to the east of the cardo, opposite the bath house. It was constructed in the early Byzantine period, above the ruins of Roman buildings. The Nile Festival building, dated to the early fifth century, measures approximately 50 x 35 meters was planned in a rather free fashion; it lacks symmetry, but in general, resembles an elongated rectangle. The buildings' central location within the city layout, its artistic richness, its size and numerous rooms indicate that it was a public building, perhaps a municipal basilica.

It appears that the building had at least two entrances, one in the west, from the main colonaded street, and the other in the north, near the "Nile Festival Room." On the sidewalk, in front of the western entrance, a mosaic floor of an eight-line inscription was laid. Two artists, Procopiuis and his son in-law Patricius, are mentioned in the inscription. They are, we presume, the craftsmen who made the mosaics found in the building.

The entire building was originally paved with colorful mosaics - some have been uncovered in a fine state of preservation. Some rooms had geometrical mosaics. Figurative panels were incorporated within geometrical carpets, indicating, for instance, a change in direction, or emphasizing the entrance to an important space (centaur, hunters and Amazons). Other rooms were decorated entirely with figurative designs, one of which is partly preserved and another is complete. Traces of similar floors have been found in two other areas.

The Nile mosaic is the largest and most important of the mosaics found in this building. Nilotic scenes as well as various hunting scenes are well known in Byzantine art, but the integration of the two themes together in one mosaic is unique. The Nilotic mosaic in Zippori, as well as the other mosaics found at the site, are important to understanding of the development of mosaic art in this region. The Dionysiac and Orpheic mosaics were produced according to the emblem tradition. This technique dates back to the Hellenistic period and characterizes Roman mosaic art until the fourth century C.E. In the fifth century, mosaic work in the east underwent a significant change. The floor surface was no longer divided into separate panels but rather, was regarded as a single unit. The scenes cover the entire floor and the images face all directions. The Nile mosaic as well as the dancing Amazons differ from the Dionysiac nd Orpheic mosaics, both in theme and composition. They belong to a large group of mosaics discovered in other cities in the east such as Antioch or Apamea. Not only the arrangement of the mosaic as one single carpet, but the images, and particularly the hunting scenes, link these mosaics with the later group.

The synagogue was found in the northern section of the city. It is very different in many ways, from all the other mosaics that have been found in Zippori. The synagogue is located not far from the city's center. It is an elongated building facing away from Jerusalem with an entrance in its southern wall. The main hall had only one aisle on its northern side, thus differing from the majority of ancient synagogues. Based on numismatic evidence, it appears that this synagogue was built during the first half of the fifth century C.E and destroyed at the end of the Byzantine period.

The most significant remnant of the synagogue is its mosaic floor which was designed as a single long carpet. The mosaic in the main hall has a figurative design, whereas in the aisle, it has geometrical designs which encompass several Aramaic inscriptions. The carpet in the main hall is divided into strips, some of which have internal subdivisions.

The floor contains rich and varied depictions. Not only a zodiac and common Jewish symbols like the Holy Ark with a seven-branched Menorah on either of its sides, for example, but also biblical scenes, including tabernacle/temple depictions and the story of the binding of Isaac which is only partly preserved.

The variety of depictions in this mosaic, and their iconographic richness, designate this mosaic an important place in Jewish art. The main theme of this mosaic is that god is the center of creation, he has chosen his people, the people of Israel, and in the future, due to his promise to Abraham on Mount Moriah, he will rebuild the temple and redeem the children of Abraham. This idea which appears in Jewish prayers, in Rabbinic sermons and in Piyut (poetry), was frimiraly aimed to transmit through art, a clear message to the community about the rebuilding of the temple and the future coming redumption. The depictions in the Zippori synagogue mosaic may also be an artistic reflection of the Judeo-Christian dialogue, regarding the identification of the chosen people, the temple which will be rebuilt and the messiah during whose time redemption will occur. Hints to this dialogue can be found in Rabbinic literature as well as in the works of the Church Fathers.

Some of the narrative depictions intertwined throughout the central carpet of the mosaic, have not been found, to date, in any other synagogues in ancient Palestine. There are a parallels in this mosaic to the frescoes found in the Dura Europos in Syria synagogue, over 60 years ago. The similarity is not limited to the organization of the panels or to the choice of themes related in these depictiots. Both sites indicate that Jews were accustomed to decorating their synagogues with biblical narrative depictions. The various scenes in the Zippori mosaic, dated to the fifth century CE, are a connecting link between Dura Europos art and Byzantine illuminated manuscripts, as well as to medieval Jewish manuscripts, in which some parallels to this floor, can be found.

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Last update: 26.2.02