SEFER, WEST BANK
A 2,000-year-old Jewish farming village has been unearthed on the outskirts of a West Bank settlement, including the remains of what appears to be one of the oldest synagogues ever discovered.
Archaeologists found dozens of stone houses separated by paved streets, wine and olive oil presses, warehouses, and stables at the site, as well as traditional Jewish ritual baths, candles, pottery, and utensils dating from the end of 1st century BC. A cache of gold and silver coins was discovered at the site recently.
The village was unearthed during construction to expand the Kiryat Sefer settlement, 18 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Excavation began in August, but the find was made public only Nov. 21.
In the center of the village is a large building paved with smooth rectangular stones. Inside are stone benches and the remains of four pillars. Yitzhak Magen, the archaeologist in charge of the site, says the layout is the same as that of synagogues found at Masada, Herodium, and Gamla in the Golan Heights - the only other known synagogues dating back that far.
"This is the first time that we found a synagogue near Jerusalem," Mr. Magen says. "We knew from historical sources - from the New Testament - that every settlement had a synagogue. This is the first proof."
Based on the dates found on coins unearthed in the village, Jews probably lived there until early in the 2nd century, Magen says. The village may have been abandoned during the Bar Kochba revolt in the middle of the century, when the Romans destroyed hundreds of towns on their way to putting down a Jewish rebellion.
Magen, head of archeology for Israel's military government in the West Bank, says archaeologists know the village was inhabited by Jews because of the presence of the ritual baths and stone containers for water and wine that were used primarily by Jews.
Empty tombs were found cut into the rock outside the village, but archaeologists believe the bones were stolen decades ago. About half of the village (54,000 square feet) has been uncovered so far.
The first synagogues are believed to have been built during the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BC, when Jews were unable to worship in the Jerusalem Temple.
Synagogues emerged as a well-established institution in the 1st century AD, according to references in the New Testament, the Talmud, and the writings of Jewish historians. Their importance grew after the second Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Romans AD 70.
More than 5,000 people, all ultra-Orthodox Jews, live in Kiryat Sefer.