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Unconditional Saranda

Rabbinic Judaism and orthodox Christianity emerged from the same culture, and for a few centuries their houses of worship were strikingly similar in design and decoration. The iconography was mostly symbolic, though with occasional narrative scenes. Jews and Christians even tended to favor the same symbols (fish, peacock, dove) and the same biblical narratives (Abraham and Isaac, Noah and the Ark). The two groups often lived in close proximity, and influence ran both ways across the street. It’s only in later centuries that synagogues tended to be strictly and almost universally aniconic (forbidding images).

With all that in mind, you might want to visit this excavation of a synagogue in Albania, from the pages of Archaeology magazine:

Colorful mosaic pavements and the fifth- or sixth-century A.D. synagogue that housed them were unearthed in the Albanian coastal town of Saranda, opposite the Greek island of Corfu. It is the first time such remains have been found from this region and time period.

Albanian archaeologists first discovered remnants of a house of worship 20 years ago during an initial excavation of the site, when Communist prohibition of religion made a more thorough survey difficult. Because the structure had undergone multiple uses throughout the centuries–most recently as a Christian church–the synagogue remained well hidden for years. When further excavations uncovered evidence of the structure’s Jewish past, the Archaeology Institute of the Albanian Academy of Sciences teamed up in 2003 with archaeologists from the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology for a joint excavation.

The first mosaic pavement depicts items associated with Jewish holidays: a menorah, a citron tree, and a ram’s horn. The other, located in the basilica of the synagogue, includes trees, animals, and the facade of a structure that may be a Torah shrine. Future excavations will venture beneath adjacent streets and buildings, where parts of the synagogue remain.

You’ll find a lovely (copyrighted) selection of photos from Saranda here, with close-ups of some of the mosaics.

For more on Jewish-Christian mutual influence in antiquity, see Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.

6 thoughts on “Unconditional Saranda

  1. Did Jewish folks become aniconic at the same time as the iconoclasm stuff started in Byzantium? Was this a multi-religion cultural trend or something

  2. Dura Europos is another intriguing synagogue from the 3rd Century, and is far more “Byzantine” in look, with depictions of Moses, Aaron, Elijah and others.

    Iconoclasm started in Byzantium ca. 720, and was imposed by certain of the Emperors, starting with Leo III. Leo was reacting to military defeats suffered by the imperial armies, and was trying to restore God’s favor. His son, Constantine V was even more zealous, forbidding invocations of the Virgin and the saints as well. He was so hated by iconophiles that he was given the surname “Kopronymus”–“name of dung.” The last iconoclast Emperor was Theophilus, who died in 842.

    Iconoclasm never really “took” outside of the imperial household and some parts of the Army, and a small segment of the imperial-appointed clergy. In defense of the more moderate iconoclasts, some of the veneration was pretty well idolatrous (having images stand as baptismal godparents, for instance) and II Nicaea’s decrees were crafted in such a way as to counter the more credible iconoclast arguments.

  3. Thanks, Dale, for a delightful comment! “Kopronymus” — I had forgotten that one. It will come in handy for many of us, for many years hence … And I’m sure all my godchildren will one day point out to me that they would have done better with an icon standing by.

    Maureen, your question is a tough one to answer. From hints in the early rabbis, it seems that the aniconic idea came first to Judaism. Islam probably picked it up there. Some historians believe that the court theologians of Leo’s time were influenced by emerging Islam.

  4. Mike:

    Thanks! Nice to know all that time spent poring over obscure tomes on Byzantium (um…is there any other kind?) occasionally serves a public function.

    Yeah, I definitely don’t want the kids comparing me to the Church Triumphant, either.

  5. I don’t know where to leave this as a comment, so I’ll toss it in here. Feel free to remove it if you want. I was just wondering if you ever led historical/biblical tours of the holy land or if you knew of any. God bless, Anne

  6. Anne,
    The St. Paul Center (for which I work) goes to Rome about every other year. We’ll probably be there in 2007. Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio, an excellent scholar of the Fathers, goes to the Holy Land. See his site:

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