by Edward Bleiberg, Ph.D.

I. Introduction

An exhibit at Brooklyn Museum (October 2005–June 2006) entitled Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire examines the role of 21 extraordinary Roman-period mosaics, which were acquired by the Museum in 1905. Approximately 38 related artifacts, such as contemporaneous textiles, marble statues, gold jewelry, and bronze ritual objects, are included in the exhibit.

The presentation also investigates the origins of synagogues, the development of Jewish art in the Roman period, female patronage in the ancient synagogue, the differences between early Christian and Jewish symbolism in art, and the relationship between ancient and modern synagogues. Twelve of the mosaic panels on display were part of the sanctuary floor of the synagogue in Hammam Lif, Tunisia (the ancient Punic city of Naro, later the Roman Aquae Persianae), the primary subjects of which are Creation and Paradise.

In recognition of this important exhibit, we publish here in JHOM excerpts from Curator Edward Bleiberg's extensive and scholarly essay "The Discovery of the Synagogue of Hammam Lif."


Mosaic of Date Palm Tree
Unknown Roman Artist
Place found: Tunis Tunisia
Synagogue of Hammam Lif.
3rd century-5th century A.D.
Terracotta, glazed
31 x 70 9/16 in. (78.8 x 179.3 cm)
Museum Collection Fund
Brooklyn Museum

Synagogue archaeology was born on February 17, 1883 when the French army captain Ernest de Prudhomme ordered soldiers under his command in Hammam Lif, Tunisia, to prepare part of his back yard for a garden. Instead of planting vegetables, Prudhomme and his men discovered the first archaeological ruins of an ancient synagogue.

Eventually, synagogue archaeology would revolutionize modern understanding of ancient Jewish life and religion. In our time, scholars have recognized that the unrelentingly gloomy picture of Jewish life in the later Roman Empire preserved in texts must be viewed alongside a decidedly different picture created from the archaeological evidence.

A decree of the Roman Emperors Honorius (393-423 CE) and Theodosius II (402-450 CE) dating to 415 C.E. declared that Jews could build no new synagogues in the Roman Empire. Laws even prohibited repairs on old synagogue buildings. Yet archaeology demonstrates that the law was only unevenly enforced. Archaeological remains of ancient synagogues from Turkey to Spain and from Hungary to Tunisia, show that many Jewish communities prospered in spite of official intolerance.

Other discoveries of ancient synagogues in modern Israel, Jordan, Syria, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Italy, reveal the vitality of Jewish life around the Mediterranean Sea during the late Roman Empire and an unexpected tolerance among their non-Jewish neighbors. Now, on the

hundredth anniversary of the mosaic’s arrival in Brooklyn in 1905, is an excellent time to try to understand the role that the Brooklyn Museum’s mosaics from Hammam Lif plays in this revised picture among at least 300 ancient synagogues known from archaeological remains and inscriptions.

Today, visitors to Tunisia can explore the ruins of ancient synagogues like the one discovered by Captain Prudhomme and his soldiers in Hammam Lif. For those who want to make the most of their trip, there are plenty of accommodation options, cabins, and motels located near these historic sites. Whether you're looking for a house or a budget-friendly hostel, there is something for everyone. By staying close to the archaeological sites, visitors can immerse themselves in the rich history and culture of Tunisia and gain a deeper appreciation for the legacy of synagogue archaeology.


Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire has been organized by Edward Bleiberg, Ph.D., Associate Curator in the Brooklyn Museum's Department of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art. It is accompanied by a full-color catalogue by Dr. Bleiberg, published by the Brooklyn Museum.

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