Second Temple-era synagogue to be moved stone by stone for highway

Rare Second Temple-era synagogue uncovered near Beit Shemesh will have to be relocated to another area to allow for already approved highway widening.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

An ancient Jewish village recently unearthed may have to stay mostly buried because it was discovered after a highway widening project had already been changed to accommodate another archaeological site, the Makor Rishon newspaper reported Sunday.

The ancient site from the Second Temple period was discovered just outside the city of Beit Shemesh, 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Jerusalem, adjacent to an existing archeological dig from the time of the First Temple.

Whenever new roads are built or existing roads altered in Israel, archaeologists are called in first to make sure antiquities or artifacts won’t be destroyed when construction begins. When archaeologists checked the area where Highway 38 was slated to be widened, they found First Temple-era artifacts. The route, which joins Beit Shemesh to the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, was slightly rerouted to avoid damaging that site, but during excavations related to the route change, the Second Temple era site was discovered.

The new remains appear to be those of a Jewish village from the Second Temple period, including a building made of unusual stone compared to the others around it. Archaeologists from the Israeli Institute of Archeology initially thought it was a church, but it soon became clear that it was actually a synagogue, making it one of the few discovered from the Second Temple period.

With the highway diversion already approved, archaeologists said they will excavate and move the remains to a new location, Makor Rishon reported.

The synagogue’s relocation requires a budget that is in doubt in light of the national economic crisis amid the corona pandemic.

Tel Beit Shemesh, where the two sites are located, is considered one of the most important archaeological areas in Israel, spanning an expanse that covers many time periods, the main one being the biblical period. Some of the finds are quite rare, including the solidly built synagogue.

“Public buildings in local communities during the Second Temple period are quite elusive, because we are talking about a time when there was a temple in which worshiping took place,” said Dr. Yuval Baruch, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, referring to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Boaz Gross of the Israeli Institute of Archaeology believes the structure probably dates from the Herodian period and that the village unearthed now was abandoned during the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans.

Since the road construction program has already been approved, it cannot be cancelled. Work began this week on dismantling the synagogue before relocating it to another location to clear the area for the highway.

Baruch said that after the removal of the synagogue building, excavation would continue underneath, with many more weeks of work and research planned in the field.