The Hidden Treasure In Israel’s Golan Heights

On Israel’s 70th year of rebirth, an ancient synagogue comes to life.

At precisely 9:00 a.m. I departed from the central Israeli city of Kfar Saba and headed northeast toward the Golan Heights. My destination was an archaeological site in the southern Golan near the Israeli kibbutz of Natur. 

Some refer to this site by its Arabic name of Umm el Kanatir or Mother of Arches, while others refer to it by its Hebrew name, Keshatot Rechavam or the Arches of Rechavam, named after Israeli general, Rechavam Zeevi. Both Hebrew and Arabic names reference two prominent and well-preserved Roman-era arches built over a local spring.

Keshatot Rechavam is no ordinary archaeological site. It has been identified as the site of the ancient Jewish village of Kantur and houses a spectacular and ornate Byzantine era, 5th century synagogue, some 60 feet long by 40 feet wide. 

The synagogue along with the entire village was destroyed in 749 C.E. when it was struck by a massive earthquake. But the stones of the impressive synagogue remained where they fell or in archaeological terms, remained in situ, untouched for nearly 1,300 years; that is, until now.

The Golan Heights was liberated by the Israeli Defense forces during the last 48 hours of the Six-Day War. The volcanic plateau revealed itself to be not only of immense strategic value to the Jewish State but also proved to be a treasure trove for those interested in archaeology and ancient Judaica.

When I visited the Keshatot Rechavam in 2011, the synagogue was in disrepair and looked as though it had in the year 749. Large stones were strewn about and pillars, apparently meant to support a second floor or a roof, were felled.  Nevertheless, there were clear indicators that the Israeli Antiquities Authority was in the process of engaging in a major restoration project aimed restoring the synagogue to its ancient splendor. Large building stones were meticulously numbered in deliberate fashion in a quest to piece together and reconstruct the building, like a giant real life puzzle.                                                          

When I arrived at the site some seven years later, I was amazed at the extent of the restoration. The ark which housed the holy Torah scrolls was completely restored and was truly a magnificent site to behold. The foundational pillars for the roof or second floor were pieced together and the walls of the synagogue had grown. Prominent arched entrances were now visible and there was even a noticeable cellar. 

What truly amazed me though were the ornate engravings. There were engravings of wine jugs surrounded by wheat stalks and grape bundles, perhaps symbolizing plentiful bounty. There was an engraving of a lion biting the neck of a lamb. There were eagle engravings on the arched entrance as well as on the ark itself. Some have noted that the eagle was a symbol commonly associated with the Land of Judea.

But of even greater import were the numerous Jewish symbols engraved throughout the structure. I counted no less than six menorahs, the multi-branched candelabra used by Jews during First and Second Temple religious rituals, and still used by Jews in contemporary times during the holiday Hanukkah to commemorate the great Jewish triumph over Greek invaders in the second century B.C.  But there were two particular engravings, etched on the pillars of the synagogue’s ark that caught my eye. The engravings consisted of menorah, flanked on the right by an Etrog (the fruit of a citron tree) and a Lulav (a ripe, green, closed frond from a date palm tree). They represent two of the four species used by the Jewish people during the festival of Sukkot. On the menorah’s left was a depiction of an incense shovel similar to that which was used by ancient priests or Kohanim in the First and Second Temples.

Though the Second Temple had been destroyed in 70 C.E., approximately 300 to 400 years prior to the construction of the Kanatir synagogue, these Jews had not forgotten their origins or history. As I noted in a previous article regarding ancient synagogues located in the Palestinian Authority-occupied city of Jericho, these structures were routinely decorated with Jewish symbols like menorahs, shofars, lulavim, etrogim and incense shovels.

While examining the engravings, I had the fortune of meeting Kanatir’s chief restorer, the chain-smoking, Turkish coffee-drinking, Yeshua Dray and asked him what he thought of the ornate Judaic engravings. “Does it not prove to the world Jewish indigenousness in the Land of Israel?” I asked. He responded that it was wrong to politicize archaeology because “beneath the Jewish civilization may lie an older one.” “That may be true,” I answered, “but how many of those civilizations still exist and still maintain the same customs and traditions after 3,000 years!” I was answered with a polite smile and a conceding shrug of the shoulders.

The synagogue discovered at Keshatot Rechavam was one of at least 25 to dot the Golan landscape. While it is certainly not the oldest – the synagogue discovered at Gamla just north of Kanatir dates to the first century C.E. – it is nevertheless magnificent, historically significant and is well worth visiting.