Jews, Greeks, and Eric Meyers, by Ethan Ruby

Filed Under (Uncategorized) by bdg6@duke.edu on 07-01-2013

The sunny skies we had become accustomed to during the first nine days of our journey turned gray, a dreary fog spread across the landscape, and wind and rain pounded the region of Galilee. Not exactly the best day to view archaeological sites, but nevertheless like clockwork we hopped on the bus this morning, and prepared for a day exploring the archaeology of the region. Our first stop, and, due to the weather, our only stop, was the ancient city of Sepphoris. Though there is evidence of earlier settlements in the area, Sepphoris really became an important city during early Roman times, and contained a sizable Jewish population. During the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans from 66-70 CE, Sepphoris chose to remain loyal to Rome and not revolt, earning them the title of “city of peace.” After the revolt was suppressed, Sepphoris was rewarded by Rome with massive public works projects and an expansion of the city. Additionally, many of the Jewish elite who were exiled from Judea after the failed revolt eventually settled in Sepphoris, and as a result by the 2nd century CE Sepphoris was a large urban center with a population of about 20,000 people and a major center of Jewish religious and cultural life in Galilee.

Looking onto the remains of the lower city of Sepphoris. Photo by Bailey Sincox.

A mosaic in the lower city. Photo by Connor Tinen.

On the outskirts of the city sits the Roman water system, which, through a system of tunnels and a natural cavern, brought fresh water from the surrounding hills to the city proper. The oldest part of the city sits on a small hill, and as the city expanded it spread out in all directions, connected by wide, well-paved streets, one of the major ones discovered by our own class TA Ben Gordon. The lower city, built surrounding the hill, contains both residences and administrative centers, the latter decorated with incredible mosaics. The most notable of these depicts a scene of the Nile River, featuring crocodiles, a Nilometer (a device that measures how high the Nile is running) and many other scenes of Egyptian culture and fauna. Fascination with  Egypt is a trademark of Hellenistic culture, as Alexandria in Egypt was one of the most important cities in the Hellenistic world, so this mosaic testifies to the heavy influence of Greco-Roman culture in Sepphoris.

After exploring the lower city we moved to the upper city, much of which was excavated by our very own Dr. Eric and Carol Meyers, and funded by Duke University. The crown jewel of the upper city is known as the “Dionysus Villa,” the private residence of a wealthy citizen that contains a beautiful mosaic with scenes depicting Dionysus — the Greek God of fertility and wine — engaging in a drinking game with Herakles. The depictions of Dionysus are unto themselves impressive, but what is most stunning about the mosaic is a picture of a woman’s face situated at the front of the mosaic. The woman is remarkably beautiful, with dark, piercing eyes that seem to follow you as you walk around the villa, earning her the nickname “The Mona Lisa of Galilee.” History leaves us no answers to who owned this villa, or even if the owner was a Jew or Gentile, though some believe it could have been the home of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, an important Jewish leader in the 2nd-3rd century CE.

The “Mona Lisa of the Galilee” on the Dionysus villa mosaic. Photo by Bailey Sincox.

Connor Tinen at Sepphoris. Photo by Bailey Sincox.

Eric Meyers and students battle the cold wind and rain on top of the Crusader fortress at Sepphoris. Photo by Bailey Sincox.

The clear influx of Greco-Roman culture at Sepphoris, a predominantly Jewish city that likely even had Jews on the city council, shows that at this time Jews were very open to Greek culture and in many artistic and cultural arenas traditional Jewish practices meshed with Greek ones. This phenomenon is also attested to by the mosaic in Sepphoris’ excavated synagogue, which contained symbolism and scenes from Greek culture. This cultural amalgamation challenges conceptions of Jews in antiquity as being orthodox and rigid and is an incredible testament to the ability of different cultures to cooperate and thrive. In modern-day Israel much of the political conflict arises from the inability of different cultures and ethnic groups to live side by side. Firebrands from both side of the conflict claim their group is the sole heir to the land, and have the sole right to live in and inhabit the country. However, the history of this area is filled with the constant introduction, meshing, and intermingling of cultures, often times on very peaceful and mutually beneficial terms. If Jews and Greeks could peacefully coexist and even learn from one another in antiquity, then I believe there is hope for peace in modern Israel.

The mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue at Sepphoris. Photo by Connor Tinen.

Touring the Duke excavation area at Sepphoris. Photo by Bailey Sincox.

Hannah Smith. Photo by Connor Tinen.

On a lighter note, today was also a great reminder that our tour is being led by verifiable archaeological rock stars. The Meyers had us captivated telling us the story of their excavation of the Dionysus Villa, conveying all the excitement of discovering The Mona Lisa of Galilee and all the ensuing scholarship that followed. Just as we were leaving, a group from Colgate University entered and one of the students, who was writing a senior thesis about the site, started to discuss it with her class. Shortly afterwards, when she discovered THE Eric Meyers was in the same room as her, she was so excited she almost fainted! An autograph and a few photos later, the girl left grinning, and we all left with a reminder of how blessed we are not only to be able to come on this trip, but also to have such world-renowned scholars leading us.

Jocelyn Streid and Hannah Smith lead a discussion on Israelite origins. Photo by Connor Tinen.

Daniel Stulac, Christie McConnell, and Andrew Hanna during the discussion. The rainy weather forced us into the hotel lobby. Photo by Connor Tinen.


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