The ancient synagogues, and especially their carved basalt decorations, have attracted researchers to the Golan since the second half of the nineteenth century. These decorations are much more than the seven-branched menorah, shofar, and incense pan that are typical of ancient synagogues. There also are images of vultures, lions, and even humans. Among the most fascinating images discovered on the Golan are two winged women – perhaps angels or cherubs – who were sighted in 1885 amid the ruins of the synagogue in Ed Dikkeh above the Jordan River, but have since disappeared without a trace. by Yadin Roman
“Leaving Et-Tell on our left, we followed the east bank of the Jordan for more than a mile,” Laurence Oliphant wrote in a letter to the New York Sun in February 1884.
He had made his way to the area after hearing that the bek (a wealthy landowner in the Ottoman Empire) of the Baticha Valley, Abd ar-Rahman Basha al-Yusuf, possessed a handsome ancient stone with inscriptions and carvings. Oliphant and his Bedouin guide had rode their horses with great difficulty along the swollen Jordan River to the imposing stone house on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. There Oliphant learned that it actually was only the residence of the landowner’s agent, who guarded his property and collected taxes from the sharecroppers who worked his lands in the valley. Oliphant also found the building shuttered and locked. The agent, some of the peasants lounging nearby told him, had gone to Damascus and would return only next week. Seeing Oliphant’s great disappointment, his Bedouin guide proposed they continue their journey northward along the banks of the Jordan River to a much more fascinating spot where ancient ruins with a wealth of decorated stones had recently been discovered.
“This river is here very rapid, and, splitting into numerous streams, whirls past the small islets they form,” Oliphant wrote of their journey, adding, “It is the very ideal of a trout stream, on which on some more propitious occasion I propose to cast a fly….”
On this occasion, however, he was focused on antiquities.
“It was on the steep rise of a hill, about a hundred yards from the river, that my guide suddenly stopped,” his account continued. “Here was a small collection of Arab hovels, recently constructed, and it was in their search for stone [building material], last summer, that the natives had for the first time uncovered the ruin which now met my delighted gaze.
“I found myself in the presence of a building the character of which I had yet to determine, the walls of which were still standing to a height of eight feet. The area they enclosed was thickly strewn with building-stones, fragments of columns, pedestals, capitals, and cornices. Two at least of the columns were in situ, while the bases of others were too much concealed by piles of stone to enable me to determine their original positions. My first impression, from the character of the architecture which was strewn about, was that this was formerly a Roman temple; but a further and more careful examination convinced me that it had originally been a Jewish synagogue, which at a later period had been converted to another use; probably it had been appropriated by the Byzantines as a basilica, or Christian church.”
Oliphant goes on to provide a detailed description of the site, writing, “The building measured forty-five feet by thirty-three, which is exactly the measurement of the small synagogue at Kefr-Birim…. The floor was depressed, and reached by a descent of two steps [inside the building], which were carried around the building in benches or seats each a foot high, the face of the upper one ornamented by a thin scroll of floral tracery…. There was a single large stone cut into the shape of an arch, which had evidently been placed on the lintel of the principal entrance…. The niches [on each side of it], with the great scallop-shell pattern which distinguishes them…. The name of this most interesting locality was ed-Dikkeh, a spot hitherto unvisited by any traveller….
“Meantime the few wild-looking natives who inhabit this remote locality clustered around me,” Oliphant wrote in his account of his visit to Ed Dikkeh, “as they watched me measuring and sketching, with no little suspicion and alarm. ‘See,’ said one to another, ‘our country is being taken from us.’ My request for old coins only frightened them the more. They vehemently protested that not one had been found.”
At the end of his description of Ed Dikkeh, Oliphant adds an important note, “I have forgotten to mention what was perhaps the most interesting object of all, and this was the carved figure of a winged female waving what seemed to be a sheaf in one hand, while her legs were doubled backward in a most uncomfortable and ungraceful position. It was on an isolated slab about six inches thick, and two feet one way by eighteen inches the other.”
Oliphant, the devout Christian who was astounded by the ruins of the synagogue, was perhaps the most fascinating and oddest western explorer who arrived in the Land of Israel in the second half of the nineteenth century. His father was a descendant of Scottish nobility and loyally served the British Empire. In 1829, the year Oliphant was born, his father was serving as the legal advisor of the British Cape Colony in South Africa. Shortly after that, his father was appointed the chief justice of Ceylon so Oliphant grew up in the island’s capital, Colombo. After taking a number of fascinating trips with his father, Oliphant began to publish his writings about his travels at the tender age of 20. A Journey to Katmandu came out in 1852 and The Russian Shores of the Black Sea followed a year later.
Upon reaching the age of 22, he set out for London to study law. After completing his studies, he was appointed the personal secretary of the eighth earl of Elgin, James Bruce, who was a descendant of Robert Bruce of Scotland. The earl’s father, Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, had gained fame for bringing the celebrated marble statues from the frieze of the Parthenon in Athens to London. Now on display at the British Museum, they are known to this day as the Elgin marbles. James Bruce had served as the governor of Canada, participating in negotiations to set the border between it and the United States. Oliphant accompanied him to the Balkan Peninsula during the Crimean War and afterwards to Japan, where he was injured in an attack that nationalists launched against the foreigners who had dared to enter their land.
After returning to England, Oliphant left the diplomatic arena and was elected to parliament. Three years in the legislature was sufficient for him – he gave up politics and moved to the US with a messianic Christian group led by Thomas Lake Harris. The group established an independent community in the new world where they could live in accordance with their beliefs. To help finance the group’s activities, Oliphant began working as a reporter for the London Times, which sent him to Paris to cover the German French war. In Paris he met his future wife, Alice Le Strange, a wealthy heiress. When they married, Harris’ group tried to gain control of his new wife’s fortune, prompting Oliphant and his wife to part ways with him.
The couple then went to the Land of Israel to promote Oliphant’s personal vision: the renewal of Jewish agricultural settlement in the Galilee. To this end, he collected a significant sum in donations and settled in Haifa in 1879. He lived alternately in the Templers’ colony in Haifa and a house he built in the Druze village of Daliyat el-Carmel. His personal assistant and secretary was the author of the Israeli national anthem, Naphtali Herz Imber, who lived with the couple in Daliyat el-Carmel. During the seven years that Oliphant spent in the Land of Israel, he traveled extensively in the Carmel, Galilee, and Transjordan. He wrote a variety of proposals to advance the Land of Israel economically, for example, by building a train from Haifa to Damascus. Oliphant even gave a hand to the members of the BILU movement who had settled in Zichron Ya’akov two years after he arrived in the land. He outlined his vision for Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, particularly in Transjordan, in his book, Land of Gilead, and in his reports for the New York Sun, which after he returned to the US were published as a book, Haifa, or Life in Modern Palestine 1882-1885. In addition to the synagogue at Ed Dikkeh, he discovered three other synagogues on the Golan at Umm el-Qanatir, Deir ’Aziz, and Kanaf.
After his wife died in January 1886, from contacting malaria during a visit to the Sea of Galilee, Oliphant left the Land of Israel. In 1888, he remarried in the US. He planned to return to the Land of Israel with his new wife, but died in London in December 1888.
Oliphant’s partner in some of his explorations and discoveries was the German Templer engineer Gottlieb Schumacher, who actually had arrived at Ed Dikkeh before him. In the early 1880s, Musa Sursok, the scion of a family of wealthy bankers from Beirut and proprietor of much of the land in the Golan and the Jezreel Valley, won the right to build the railway line from Haifa to Damascus. Sursok hired Schumacher to plan it. The main challenge was to figure out a way for trains to climb the steep ascent to the Golan. Schumacher took advantage of the opportunity to conduct a comprehensive survey of the Golan and his writings about this were published in the newsletter of the German society for the exploration of the Holy Land. Schumacher’s reports eventually were compiled and published as a book, The Jaulan, in 1888 by the British Palestine Exploration Fund. This book served as the guide for the archaeological survey of the Golan conducted after the Six Day War.
Schumacher, as mentioned above, actually had visited Ed Dikkeh a year before Oliphant. As was his custom, which was completely different from Oliphant’s flowery writing, he left a precise, dry description of the building along with sketches of the stones he saw at the site. They included the winged figure that then was still in place above the two pillars that stood in the building.
“It would not be too daring,” Schumacher summed up his visit, “to include Ed Dikkeh among the Jewish structures in Transjordan.”
The Great Gable
When Schumacher and Oliphant visited Ed Dikkeh, methods for archaeological excavation did not yet exist. However, by the time the expedition of the German Oriental Society arrived some two decades later, enough archaeological knowledge had accumulated to conduct a serious survey of the structure.
Architect and architectural researcher Heinrich Kohl and archaeologist Carl Watzinger led the German expedition. Their goal was to survey, map, and excavate the ancient synagogues of the Galilee. After surveying, sketching, mapping, and excavating the synagogue at Capernaum, they arrived at Ed Dikkeh on April 29, 1905. During their three-day visit, Kohl and Watzinger exposed the northern side of the large structure down to its stone floor, measured all the parts of the building, and created precise sketches of the finds. In their book, Ancient Synagogues in Galilee (Antike Synagogen in Galilaea, 1916), they presented a building plan for the synagogue at Ed Dikkeh and a proposal to restore its original façade. They mentioned the decorations included an image of a winged woman and even conjectured that the orientation of the image carved onto the square stone may indicate that it was facing a second similar image. They proposed that the winged women had once flanked the lone window in the synagogue’s façade, right above the main entrance. However, they regretfully noted that there was no sign of the stone itself during their visit so all they had to present was Schumacher’s sketch of it.
More than six decades passed between the three-day German visit and the Israeli archaeological survey conducted after the Six Day War. During these six decades, the remains of the synagogue at Ed Dikkeh almost completely disappeared. Most of its stones were reused to build houses in Ed Dikkeh and after the War of Independence, the Syrian Army, which was stationed in the area, wrought further havoc. Despite the many years since Schumacher’s book had been written, the Israeli survey relied on it greatly. Archaeologist Claire Epstein, who led one of the two survey teams, arrived at Ed Dikkeh thanks to his book, only to discover that little remained of the grand building that he had described. All that she found were a few architectural elements that were scattered around the site. She promptly transferred them to the courtyard of Kibbutz Ein Gev and the Golan Archaeology Museum.
Some 20 years would pass until Zvi Uri Ma’oz, the Golan district archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority, returned to check what had come of the ancient synagogue. Ma’oz wandered among the ruins of the abandoned Syrian village of Ed Dikkeh, seeking stones that might have been part of synagogue. With the assistance of the detailed sketches drawn by earlier researchers, he succeeded to draft a new plan for the ancient synagogue and proposed a restoration of its magnificent façade.
His proposal featured three entrances in the façade. An arch adorned with amazing reliefs topped the main entrance. All that remained of the arch by that time was Schumacher’s sketch. The main entrance was flanked by two smaller doorways above which were stone lintels decorated with a scallop pattern and reliefs of vultures and other animals. On the second floor of the façade, Ma’oz sketched four windows: a single window on each side of the façade and a double window at the center.
Above the second story, Ma’oz sketched a huge gable. A vulture with outstretched wings perched on the gable’s vertex, overlooking all those who approached the synagogue from the daunting height of 12 meters. The Golan’s ancient residents venerated the vulture, which the talmudic sages crowned the king of birds. The impressive figure of the vulture appears repeatedly among the stone decorations in synagogues in the Golan. These stone vultures were schematic depictions generally in standing positions with their wings close to their body. Ma’oz did not find a place in his grandiose two-story reconstruction for the winged woman that Schumacher and Oliphant had recorded.
“You Shall Not Make for Yourself a Sculptured Image”
In his explorations of ancient synagogues over a century ago, Oliphant had been surprised to see depictions of animals. He wondered how that had been justified in light of the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image” (Exodus 20:4). He assumed that the synagogues had been built in the first centuries CE and so the vultures had been posted there at the orders of the Romans since it was one of their symbols. That, of course, does not explain the reliefs of lions that appeared alongside the vultures, let alone the images of humans or the winged woman of Ed Dikkeh. The survey of the Golan after the Six Day War found a fragment of a winged victory goddess, which heightened the mystery regarding the precise place of the winged goddess and how it had come to adorn a synagogue.
Depictions of animals and humans were completely absent from art during the Second Temple Period, when the Jews of the Land of Israel strictly maintained the ban on graven images, be they sculptures or pictures. However, starting in the fifth century CE, images of animals, humans, and gods begin to appear on mosaic floors and stone decorations in synagogues throughout the Galilee and Golan. Today the accepted explanation for this is that the synagogues in the Golan, like most of the 120 ancient synagogues discovered thus far in the Land of Israel, are from the Byzantine Period, specifically from the fourth and fifth centuries CE or later. Yet it remains unclear why the sages agreed to the introduction of figurative decorations in synagogues and Jewish homes, in imitation of the surrounding Byzantine culture. Hints of the sages’ thinking can be found in the Talmud, which was redacted in the period when many of these synagogues were constructed. According to the Talmud’s Avodah Zarah tractate, which deals with idolatry, “In the days of Rabbi Yochanan, they began to draw on the walls and they did not object. In the days of Rabbi Abon, they began to draw on mosaics and they did not object” (Jerusalem Talmud, Avodah Zarah tractate 3:2). In other words, there was tacit acceptance of the decorations.
There are those who maintain that paganism’s declining power as Christianity rose and the imperial closure of pagan temples in 391 BCE voided the cultic significance of sculptures and drawings so the sages permitted Jews to decorate synagogues with them. Perhaps the decline of the Land of Israel’s centrality in determining the Jewish lifestyle, as the large, rich communities in Babylonia gained influence, was a factor. Perhaps an effort was made to shore up these synagogues with grand ornamentation and grant artists greater creative freedom in design and ornamentation in the hope that erecting fascinating, inviting buildings would strengthen these communities and help them survive in a world where Christianity was growing more dominant.
“The simple meaning of the well-known verse from the 10 Commandments is that it is forbidden to create any images of animals whatsoever,” Rabbi Mordechai Halperin explains in an article in 1982 in the journal Moreshet Derekh, which was the predecessor of ERETZ VATEVA. “In light of that verse, it is hard to understand the existence of works of art in mosaics in synagogues during the time of the Mishnah and the Talmud that include images of a variety of animals … and the question arises as to what authority in Jewish religious law permitted figurative images to remain in synagogues for hundreds of years?”
The second of the 10 Commandments has been interpreted in various ways up to and including today. Many interpretations note that this commandment actually begins with the words, “You shall have no other gods besides Me” (Exodus 20:3), which are immediately followed by, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.” This could support the theory that the ban on creating a sculpture or picture refers to doing so for cultic purposes in order to worship idols. This is the bone of contention between two different schools of thought regarding this issue. According to the approach of Rabenu Elyakim, as presented in Or Zarea, a commentary on the Talmud’s Avodah Zarah tractate, “There was an incident in Colonia of drawing the form of a lion on the windows of the synagogue and Rabenu Elyakim instructed to remove it since it was said ‘You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image.’” In contrast, Maimonides interpreted the verse to prohibit creating pictures only if they are intended for idol worship. Maimonides understood this commandment to be part of the ban on idolatry and not as a general ban on sculptures and pictures.
Centuries before Maimonides offered his opinion, during the Byzantine Period, archaeological finds demonstrate that synagogues in the Land of Israel and beyond made due with a minimalistic approach to the ban. Not only winged angels, but also clearly idolatrous imagery appears in the mosaic floors of the more ornate synagogues, as if they had adopted the prohibition of the Mishah to “not adore he who sits in the chariot” as a guide. The sun god Helios appears with his chariot and horses in the synagogues of Beth Alpha and Hammath Tiberias. The royal figure is surrounded by the symbols of the zodiac, which are illustrated with nude figures. It seems that in that period, there was no concern that decorating the floor of a synagogue in this way would be considered idolatry and it was done out of artistic considerations alone.
This seemingly contradicts the strict prohibition in the Torah of deriving any benefit from anything whose origins are found in idolatry. The Mishnah, which was redacted during and immediately after the days of the Second Temple, interprets this prohibition to mean that a sculpture of a goddess that came into Jewish hands must be destroyed.
However, in the Talmud, Rabbi Gamaliel, who served as the nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin, explained to the Greek philosopher who tried to mock him that this ban is valid only for gods who still are actively being worshipped: “Proculus son of the philosopher asked Rabbi Gamaliel in Acre why he bathed in the bathhouse of Aphrodite. He said: It is written in your Torah, ‘And do not take any benefits from the banned,’ so what are you doing bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite?” (Avodah Zarah tractate, chapter 3). Rising to the challenge, as he exited the bathhouse in which there was a statue of the goddess, Gamaliel responded, “They do not say: Let’s make the bathhouse beautiful for Aphrodite, but let’s make Aphrodite beautiful for the bathhouse. Another thing, if you are given a great deal of wealth, you do not go in to worship your idols naked and impure and urinate before her; she stands by the sewer and the entire nation urinates before her. Do not say ‘your gods,’ this behavior is forbidden before any god; and for you who do not behave as if this is a god, it is permitted.”
Winged Lion – Completely Prohibited
Questions about decorating synagogues with winged women, lions, and vultures are not limited to the realm of Byzantine or medieval debate. In 1948, the committee of the great synagogue in Herzliya turned to the chief rabbi of Israel, Isaac Herzog, to inquire whether it is permissible to embroider lions on the curtain for their synagogue’s ark.
“Were you to heed my advice,” the respected rabbi responded, “you would not make for yourselves any image of an animal in the synagogue and definitely not on the holy ark. Your intention to make the ark beautiful is fitting, but both from the decorative aspect and the artistic aspect, [using the image of a lion]adds very little. And, the fact of the matter is that it is not permitted in all opinions. Among our rabbis who are great scholars of religious law and mysticism, may their virtue stand in good stead, there are those who absolutely oppose this and object to it… And the objections have another point: take into consideration our neighbors of the Islamic religion who have a strict ban on all that borders on idol worship….
“However, if you stand on the side of justice,” Herzog continued in the second part of his response, “the majority of our chief rabbis of blessed memory, first and foremost of which is our great rabbi Maimonides of blessed memory, permit the image of a lion … and consider the fact that we already have seen images like this on the arks of many synagogues outside the Land of Israel even among the most ultra-Orthodox populations, in Lithuania, Poland and so on. I cannot say that what I saw with my own eyes is forbidden.
“However, the sample that you sent to me with the image of a winged lion, I absolutely forbid. It is taken from images that survived from previous peoples – it comes from pagan sources in mythology. Blessed is he who uproots idolatry, which is not to be mentioned, from these lands and we will remember them in our synagogue.”
In conclusion, he suggests, “If you use the image of a lion as a symbol of heroism since the lion does the will of our father in heaven, in any event, use the example below so only one side of the body will be visible and not the full image and definitely not with wings.”
Thus Herzog, as well as former chief Sephardic rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, who demanded that the lions be removed from the curtains of arks in synagogues, would not have favored putting the winged women in the synagogue at Ed Dikkeh, no matter where they were put in the synagogue.
Goddesses of Victory
The synagogue at Ed Dikkeh has not been excavated methodically to this day so it is impossible to know precisely when it was constructed. However, based on its similarity to other synagogues in the Golan and Galilee, it seems to have been built in the fifth century CE. Like the 29 other synagogues in the Golan dated to the Byzantine Period, great effort was invested in it. It apparently was an impressive building that soared above the houses of the village, was constructed of well-hewn basalt stones, and boasted a handsome, decorated main hall. When the members of the community gathered to pray, to read the Torah on Sundays and Thursdays, and to celebrate the Sabbath and holidays, the power and grandeur of the building surely elevated their spirit, strengthening their connection to the place, the nation, and Judaism. Such a building had great importance in the Byzantine Period, a time of difficult battles with Christianity, which was spreading from the cities to the rural areas and offering financial and spiritual incentives to tempt people to join its ranks.
Thus 350 years after Israel ceased to exist as an independent state on its own land, the synagogues symbolized the continuation of a Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. The sacred vessels in the synagogue served as reminders of the days when the Second Temple stood in Jerusalem. The vulture, the king of the birds, along with the lion, the king of the beasts, were both strong, regal animals who reminded the worshippers that even though Israel may no longer have been the ruler of its land on the political level, nature and the environment were theirs as this was their promised land. Above all this, the synagogue at Ed Dikkeh placed the winged women. These goddesses of victory bearing sheaves of wheat perhaps symbolized hope or were the embodiment of the cherubs that guarded the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple.
However, the communities’ spiritual strength and courage was not sufficient. The Land of Israel’s dominance in setting religious law declined in comparison to the new spiritual center in Babylonia, churches and monasteries were constructed throughout the land, and in the seventh century CE, Islam entered the arena as well. The menorahs of the synagogues were slowly extinguished. Some collapsed in earthquakes, some became churches, and all deteriorated into ruins as the villages were abandoned. The ancient synagogues of the Golan are evidence of a flourishing Jewish community that existed during the time of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Their disappearance and abandonment is a clear, concrete expression of the crumbling of Jewish communities in the Land of Israel several centuries after the loss of independence.
The winged women of Ed Dikkeh remained in place for hundreds of years after the village was abandoned. Over time, one fell to the ground and the other shattered and its pieces were taken to build the flour mill of a new community that arose at Ed Dikkeh a millennium after the Jewish village was abandoned. At some point after 1884, the goddesses of victory disappeared into thin air. Perhaps that is for the best as now they cannot provoke controversy in the fractious Jewish communities of the Land of Israel today over whether it is permissible or prohibited to incorporate them into a synagogue.