In 1928, Israeli farmers in Beth Alpha, located at the base of Mount Gilboa
in the Valley of Jezreel, were digging an irrigation ditch when they unearthed
a brightly colored mosaic chip. A Hebrew inscription on the piece was
cause for consultation with Professor Eliezer Sukenik of the Hebrew University,
who immediately ordered an archaeological dig. This led to the discovery
of the remains of a fifth century synagogue's pillars and walls. The greatest
surprise came when they unearthed an almost completely intact zodiac mosaic
elegant floor of warmly colored stones contains an instantly recognizable
image of the twelve signs. The Greek Sun god Helios is the largest image,
appearing in the center of the horoscope wheel. He's crowned and is shown
inside his chariot surrounded by stars and a crescent Moon. Four horses
appear with him, and his chariot has multi-colored wheels.
renditions of the zodiac signs appear in the house sectors, starting with
Libra at the rising sign point, rather than traditional Aries. Angels
of the four seasons decorate the corners. Twenty-two different stones
were used to create this masterpiece; the Hebrew alphabet is comprised
of the same number of letters. The pavement was made in the time of Emperor
Justin the First, who reigned from 518 to 527. It covers the entire nave
area and has inscriptions referring to the zodiac in Hebrew and Greek.
Creation of the Beth Alpha Zodiac
mosaic came into being when the temple elders decided to call for a facelift
of their place of worship. An independent builder named Marianus was hired
to create something impressive and grand. He had traveled to Greece and
seen the latest trends in temple décor, and suggested a radical
popular with the Greeks at the time, and Marianus managed to convince
the elders to accept his zodiac design, complete with Helios the Sun god
in the center placement. They agreed under the condition that the Holy
Ark appear above the image on the top panel, the place of supremacy signifying
faith in God. Beth Alpha mosaic was created with three panels: the Holy
Ark, the zodiac and the story of the sacrifice of Issac. Marianus and
was paid 100 measures of grain for his efforts.
Influence in Hebrew Temples
may not have had to leave home to come up with the astrology motif. He
could have easily looked to the many examples of in his own country. Graeco-Roman
images of Helios and the zodiac were common and fashionable.
of the twelve zodiac signs with Helios in his sun chariot surrounded by
angels have been discovered in seven ancient synagogues in Israel. In
addition to Beth Alpha, the zodiacs appear at Hammath Tiberias, Khirbet
Susiya,Yafia, Sepphoris, Beth Shean, Husifa,and Na'aran. The Louvre also
has a tiny first or second century mural remnant of the sign of Capricorn from the wall of Dura-Europus. All the pavements consist of three parts:
an inscription or scene, a center zodiac panel and a representation of
Jewish religious objects such as the Ark, Torah or menorah.
the Graeco-Roman environment had a great deal of influence on Jewish religious
art. The appearance of the Sun god Helios, as well as pagan zodiac images,
reflected the popularly held belief of planetary influence on worldly
affairs. Helios has a long history in Judaism. His figure is found in
both text and magical amulets from that time period.
tradition believes the first Jewish patriarchs used astrology, including
Abraham. Abraham came from Babylon or Mesopotamia, a city with a name
that translates as "light of the astrologers," where planetary
deities were worshipped. One astrological treatise possibly written by
Abraham is known to have existed in the third century B.C. Abraham's father
Terach was also an astrologer.
B.C.), as Pharaoh's adopted son, was also an astrologer. He correlated
the attributes of the twelve signs to the twelve tribes of Israel, then
took the people from the tabernacle in the wilderness on their pilgrimage,
lined up by zodiacal order. Rabbinical tradition asserts that the signs
of the zodiac have represented the twelve tribes since antiquity.
floor is renown as one the most important mosaics in Israel. The synagogue
is now part of a National Park on Kibbutz Hefzibah. Visitors can tour
the Beth Alpha Synagogue National Park and see the most complete zodiac
floor from the time when astrology held a place in the synagogue.