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2000-year-old synagogue discovered in Russia

TJI Pick
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2000-year-old synagogue discovered in Russia

Published: 18 August 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

The existence of the synagogue close to the Black Sea sheds light on the dispersion of the Jewish people and the spread of religion across Europe.

An early synagogue from the late Second Temple period has been found in the ancient city of Phanagoria, near the Black Sea in Russia, according to the archaeologists excavating the site. Its identity and dating are based on analysis of the artifacts and inscriptions found there, including menorah engravings.

Based on dating inscriptions with the words “synagogue” or “house of prayer,” the archaeological team concludes that the synagogue operated from the first century to the sixth, when it was destroyed in an attack by local tribes on the city, according to Ruben Bunyatyan, spokesman for the Oleg Deripaska Volnoe Delo Foundation, which is excavating the site.

“The significance of this discovery is manifold. Firstly, it unequivocally places Phanagoria, an ancient Greek polis, within the annals of Jewish history. It also indicates that Phanagoria likely served as a gateway for world religions to enter the territory of modern-day Russia,”  Bunyatyan says. “A similar revelation occurred a few years ago, demonstrating that Phanagoria housed the oldest Christian diocese in what is now Russia. It is probable that religions primarily spread by sea before establishing their presence along the shores of the Kerch strait and subsequently moving inland.

“Based on these records, it can be stated that Judaism as a religion emerged on the northern shore of the Black Sea around 2000 years ago,” said Vladimir Kuznetsov, the director of archaeological mission in Phanagoria.

A number of Jewish settlers likely relocated to the Kerch Strait coastline after the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE, and they may have brought Judaism to Phanagoria. Another theory is that settlers from other parts of the Diaspora introduced Judaism to Russia.

Synagogue from late second temple period found by Black Sea in Russia (Haaretz)  

Photo: Fragments of a precious marble menorah from the Phanagoria synagogue and reconstruction of what it looked like (Vitaly Timkiv @ Oleg Deripaska Volnoe Delo Foundation)

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