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Book title: Handbook of Synagogue Architecture
By: Marilyn Joyce Segal Chiat
Publisher: Scholars Press
ISBN: 0891305246
Edition: 1982
Book type: PDF
Pages: 404
File size: 13.14 MB
eBook title: Handbook of Synagogue Architecture free download pdf ebook

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About the book:

The contents of the book are both larger and more restricted than the title suggests. It deals not only with synagogue remains but also with ornamental,
epigraphic, numismatic evidence uncovered within the boundaries of ancient Palestine. These boundaries are not derived from talmudic or biblical sources, but are the limits of the city-territories formed by the Romans, following their conquest of the country. The author has opted for this division because she assumes that “Rome’s division of Palestine accurately reflects the religious, social, and cultural configurations of the province” (p. 6). This option, however, forces her to include in her list a good number of places in which there are no remains at all of synagogues (e.g. more than half of the 17 entries east of the Jordan river). The chronological limits of the Handbook are nowhere clearly stated. In fact, the author deals only with synagogue remains from the first seven centuries of the common era.
Within these limits of time and place, she has attempted to collect the available evidence about: (1) name of the site and map reference; (2) survey of the site; (3) character and sections of the building; (4) measurements; (5) orientation; (6) character and form: apse, niche, Torah shrine, bema, chancel; (7) auxiliary rooms and structures; (8) ornamenta- tion ; (9) coins, ceramics, and artifacts found within the building complex; (10) inscriptions; (11) donors and patrons; (12) date; (13) selected bibliography. We have before us a card-index system, arranged according to the seven regions and forty-four city-territories (or districts) of the Roman province of Palestine, rather than a digest.
The problems with the Handbook start with the definitions used and the assumptions lying behind them. All the entries are classified in one of three categories: I. Validated; II. Attested; III. Disputed. In the first category we find 36 synagogues; in the second 48; in the third 59, divided into two subcategories: III A. attributed (12 on the list, but only 10 in the book), which means that the ruins lack any Jewish inscription or motifs, but are identified as the remains of a synagogue by some scholars; and III B. not accepted (47), which means that they also lack any Jewish motif, but the attribution as remains of a synagogue is questionable on the basis of the present evidence.
To start with the third category. The assumption seems to be that unless the evidence proves the contrary all claims made for the identification of a ruin as a synagogue must to be accepted, even if the basis for such a claim is minimal at the best. A pair of examples: Gus Halav B (p. 45): The basis for postulating a synagogue beneath the Maronite Church is the similarity of some elements, used anew in the Church, with the synagogue of Gus Halav A. But nothing proves that these elements do not come from this synagogue, all the more so since (as the author recognizes) the evidence drawn from the excavation beneath the Church is “meager”. In the case of the Samaritan synagogue of Ramat Aviv (pp. 165-167) the excavator himself describes the remains as a Samaritan Church.
The biggest problems are with the second category. According to the author’s definition this category includes: “Architectural or decorative fragments bear Jewish inscriptions and/or motifs from a Synagogue; location of the building is unknown” (p. 2) A look into the 48 cases of this category shows that in general there are no architectural remains as such, and the only basis to postulate the existence of a synagogue are ornamental elements found in,’or related to, the place. In 17 cases the only element which is available is a menorah, generally carved on a lintel, found in the place or used again in a village house. Using the same principle any stone decorated with a cross (including a good number of cases in which both symbols have been found together) would indicate the existence of a Christian church. A few examples chosen at random from the beginning and the end of the book: Ki’ilya (p. 15): “Several capitals were found in the area of Ki’ilya; one was decorated with a menorah. Fragments of a white mosaic pavement also were reported in the courtyard of Yusuf Qassis”. Gadara (p. 313): “A stone, now at the Louvre, was found built into a modern house in Tiberias; according to the occupant, the stone was found at Gadara. Measuring approximately 38 x 86 cm., the stone is decorated with a wreath tied with a Hercules knot, inside of which is a bur- ning seven-branched menorah standing on a tripod base flanked by a lulab and sofar. In each of the stone’s four corners is a rosette. Another stone, also decorated with a menorah, is in the Hospice of the Franciscan Fathers in Jerusalem. Its provenance is unknown, but it too was reported found in Tiberias; but it may be from Gadara”. What the casual discovery of a menorah or the like has to do with synagogue architecture is anybody’s guess, but the problem is that the author has incorporated the category I and II in the Tables 8 through 12, giving a distorted impression of the reality.
Even if we ascribe to the author’s categories, her attribution of the architectural remains to one or another seems sometimes a bit arbitrary. This is the case with many of the distinctions between III A and III B, because nowhere are criteria to be found for questioning and not accepting the attributions. The same goes, more strangely, for categories II and III. A case in point is Hirbet Jabatra (p. 78): “One of the building’s stones appears to have been decorated with a five-branched menorah flanked by two objects, possibly a lulab and etrog. A debased Ionic capital also was found in the debris. In the summer of 1974 Adam Drucks of the Israel Department of Antiquities made a cut into the hill and discovered the outer wall of a public building. The wall measured 15 meters long with remains up to three meters high. The building has not been excavated. It is unclear whether the stone remains reported earlier belong to the public building Drucks uncovered. The evidence is too inconclusive to make an attribution”. But nevertheless the author places it in the category II as an attested synagogue.
The book is well indexed, although there are no distinctions between the references to the main entry of a place and occasional ones. The small size of the plans and the poor quality of the reproduction of the map are certainly a handicap for a handbook. In spite of S.’s efforts, a handbook of Synagogue Architecture is still a desideratum.

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