Letter from the Field: An Ancient Synagogue Comes to Light
Priene is one of Turkey’s best preserved ancient cities. It has a dramatic location on the south side of Mount Mycale, which separates it from Ephesus to the north. The city is draped over a saddle beneath a massive acropolis and arranged in the regular streets characteristic of the Hippodamian grid plan. The city formerly lay beside the ancient Gulf of Latmus (now silted in) across from Miletus. Priene is noted for a number of outstanding Hellenistic structures that still remain: the theater, prytaneion, bouleterion, gymnasion, and extensive city walls. But now Priene is also famous for the synagogue that was discovered in the western residential area in 1895–98 by Theodor Wiegand and Hans Schrader. In their excavation report published in 1904 the structure was tentatively identified as a house church, and so it was labeled on the site plan. In 1928 the Israeli archaeologist E. L. Sukenik first identified this as a synagogue because of the presence of a niche in the building plan and the discovery of a menorah plaque near the niche. Numerous scholars have commented on the synagogue’s significance to Diaspora Judaism but have lamented the lack of further information. Literary evidence tells us that hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in Asia Minor in the first century C.E. However, only two confirmed synagogues have been found: the large one in Sardis and this second one in Priene.
In 2008 Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, visited Priene with contributing editor Suzanne Singer and Mark Wilson. Shanks proposed to excavation director Professor Dr. Wulf Raeck that the Biblical Archaeology Society would sponsor a fresh look at the synagogue, with its unusual square apse or niche. Professor Raeck indicated his interest in such a project, and the first excavation at the site in over a century was scheduled for August 2009.
Archeologist Dr. Nadin Burkhardt from the University of Frankfurt am Main and Dr. Mark Wilson of the Asia Minor Research Center in Izmir began the work at the synagogue during this year’s campaign. The project had been scheduled for two weeks because of the great amount of work that was required. A team of three Turkish workmen first cleaned the whole area. One of the first objects recovered was a missing menorah plaque with two peacocks. This plaque had been published both as a drawing and as a photograph since the initial excavation, but the drawings lacked accuracy and detail. So the plaque was redrawn and then taken to the excavation depot for safekeeping.
An important dimension of the current work was the critical re-measuring of the building and its adjacent structure. Several sondages were taken at key points in an attempt to find ceramic or numismatic evidence of the synagogue’s date as well as to gain an understanding of the different phases of the building. An altar, cut in two and laid down as flooring, was lifted from the floor. A previously unknown Hellenistic inscription to Athena Polias, the patron goddess of Priene, was discovered on it. The niche was cleaned out, and the plaster exposed in an attempt to learn how the niche functioned architecturally in the building. There are several questions still to answer regarding its particular placement in the eastern wall. A team of architects descended on the area during the second week, and made drawings of the building spolia that lay in the synagogue. Their work has allowed a more informed reconstruction of the interior space to be made. The remains of a bench on the north wall are clearly discerned; however, the function of a complementary structure on the south side remains undetermined. The area, sometimes called the main entrance of the synagogue, still leaves unanswered questions. It appears the excavations a century ago greatly disturbed the area, making a full reconstruction difficult. An entrance from the main street through the nearby prostas house seems certain. Also certain are two main periods of the building construction, different in size and form.
The small finds, the relief plaque, two graffiti with menorah, and the building structure suggest an interpretation of the building as a late antique synagogue. The new excavation was a great success, and a full report is being prepared for publication in academic journals as well as, perhaps, a general summary to come in Biblical Archaeology Review. We hope to be in the field again next year.
Mark Wilson combines thorough knowledge of the Bible with an intimate familiarity with Turkey’s historic sites. In 2009–10 he worked at the BAS-sponsored excavation of the synagogue at Priene. Mark Wilson is the director of the Asia Minor Research Center in Antalya, Turkey. Mark received his doctorate in Biblical Studies from the University of South Africa (Pretoria), where he serves as a Research Fellow in the Department of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology. He is currently Visiting Professor of Early Christianity at Regent University and leads field studies in Turkey for several universities and seminaries. He is the author of Biblical Turkey: A Guide to the Jewish and Christians Sites of Turkey, Charts on the Book of Revelation, and Revelation (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary series). Professor Wilson also served as a consultant for “The First Christians” in the History Channel’s “Lost Worlds” series.
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