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