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Oldest Known Synagogue in Jerusalem Identified


The oldest known synagogue to be found in Jerusalem, dating back to the first half of the 7th century C.E., has been identified. Remnants of a Byzantine-era structure in Jerusalem's Old City were first uncovered years ago by Prof. Benjamin Mazar of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem Institute of Archaeology. Dr. Eilat Mazar, granddaughter of Benjamin Mazar and herself a Hebrew University archaeologist, has confirmed that the building, known as the "House of Menorot" (seven-branched candelabras) - because of the profusion of candelabra paintings in its interior - was in fact a synagogue and Jewish place of gathering dating from the first half of the 7th century C.E.

This would make the structure the oldest remnant of a Jewish house of worship in Jerusalem. The earliest previously discovered synagogue, which has been restored and is in use today, is the Ramban Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. It dates from the 13th century.

Earlier scientific publications regarding "The House of Menorot" concluded that it had been a Jewish public building of some sort that had been in use during the brief period of Persian rule in the early part of the 7th century C.E. However, according to Dr. Mazar's paper, it was used as a synagogue and house of study at the time of Moslem rule in Jerusalem in 638 C.E.

The structure, partly excavated by Prof. Mazar in 1971-73, is a two-story stone building and courtyard located near the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount in an area today set aside as an archaeological park.

Its Byzantine style of construction and the cross engraved on its lintel testify to its origins as a public building of a Christian nature during Byzantine rule in the city. It was destroyed following the Persian conquest of 614 C.E., then rebuilt following the Moslem conquest, says Dr. Mazar.

It is from this period, she says, that one finds wall paintings of seven-winged candelabra - a clear Jewish symbol of all the ages - on the lintel and within the building. The building also contains many indentations in the entranceways to the rooms of the structure, where mezuzot (scrolls containing sections of Scripture placed in Jewish homes and public buildings) would have been attached, and glass lamps that would have been used to illuminate the interior. All of these elements taken together point to the building's use as a Jewish house of prayer and study, says Dr. Mazar.

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