In November 2013–March 2014 and April–July 2019, two seasons of salvage excavations were conducted in the Tif’eret Yisra’el Synagogue compound, in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem (Permit Nos. A-6945, A-7027 and License No. B-476/2019; map ref. 222094–110/631400–14; Fig. 1), prior to construction and restoration work. The excavations, undertaken on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and funded by the Corporation for the Renovation and Development of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem Ltd., were directed by O. Gutfeld and T. Rogovski (2019 season; field and studio photography), with the assistance of I. Novoselsky (drawing), V. Essman, Y. Shmidov and M. Kahan (surveying and drafting), A. Peretz (photography), D. Zell (3D photography), I. Yezerski-Geva (Iron Age pottery), H. Geva (Second Temple period pottery and scientific consultation), A. de Vincenz (Early Islamic pottery), R. Jackson-Tal (glass), R. Nenner-Soriano (small finds), N. Amitai-Preiss (numismatics and Arabic inscriptions), M. Lavi (metallurgical laboratory) and N. Vilozny (frescoes).
The Tif’eret Yisra’el Synagogue (Fig. 2) was built in 1877, in the center of the Jewish Quarter, between Tif’eret Yisra’el Street to the north, Ha-Qara’im Street to the south, the Qara’ite Synagogue to the west and the Western Wall Yeshiva to the east. In the course of the occupation of the Old City by the Jordanian Legion in May 1948, the building was shelled and destroyed. In the 1970s, excavations were conducted in the Burnt House (Area B), north of the synagogue, and in the Herodian Quarter (Areas F, M and P), south of the synagogue (Geva 2010).
The excavations uncovered five settlement strata (Strata V–I; Fig. 3) dating from Iron Age II, the Early Roman Second Temple period, and the Byzantine, Mamluk and Ottoman periods. Many of the remains were damaged when the synagogue was built, especially when its central pier was constructed. In 2018, between the two seasons, an excavation was undertaken on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority in the northwestern corner of the area (Tchekhanovets 2020).
Stratum V—Iron Age II. A north–south wall (length c. 4 m, width 0.6 m) in the center of the excavation area was built of two rows of fieldstones and preserved for three courses (height 0.6 m). The eastern face of the wall was abutted by a white plaster surface containing Iron Age II burnished pottery sherds. The southern part of the wall contained an opening (width 0.6 m), beyond which lay a perpendicular wall (length 2.25 m) that extended eastward. The two walls and the plaster surface formed a single architectural unit. To the west, a rock-hewn circular installation yielded potsherds dating from the eighth century BCE. In the northwestern part of the excavation area, an east–west aligned wall was built of a row of fieldstones bonded with mortar and mud. Slipped bowl sherds dating from the eighth–seventh centuries BCE were found between and beneath the stones.
Stratum IV—Early Roman Period. Many remains and finds were found from this period, most dating from the end of the Great Revolt (70 CE). A burnt layer (thickness c. 0.5 m) contained pieces of charred wooden beams, smashed pottery, glass fragments, stone vessels, fish bones and two coins. A round stone weight bore a two-line incised Aramaic inscription, reading ‘Ndbarei Katros’ (Fig. 4). A similar weight was found in Nahman Avigad’s excavations in the Burnt House, a few meters northwest of the Tif’eret Yisra’el Synagogue (Geva, Gutfeld and Nenner-Soriano 2016:116–117).
In the eastern part of the excavation, a plastered miqveh had an entrance on its western side, from where three steps descended eastwards and then turned to the north (Fig. 5). The central part of the miqveh was damaged by the synagogue’s northern internal wall, and the eastern part was damaged by a Byzantine-period wall. When the Byzantine wall was dismantled, a pool (0.75 × 1.00 m, depth 1.65 m) was found immediately to the east of the miqveh; both the miqveh and the pool were coated with gray hydraulic plaster.
A massive reddish-brown soil fill layer was uncovered in the center of the excavation area and to the west of the miqveh. The soil fill contained many small fieldstones and potsherds, mostly dating from the Hellenistic period (third–second centuries BCE) with some from the Iron Age. The pottery included an amphora handle stamped with the Greek name ‘supartou’, a familiar name on amphorae from the Island of Kos.
In the western part of the excavated area, a rock-hewn storeroom coated with light-colored plaster was roofed with a well-preserved vault (Fig. 6). The storeroom was cut by one of the synagogue walls that was removed in the 2018 excavation (Tchekhanovets 2020
), revealing the storeroom’s northward continuation. A layer of rich finds on the storeroom’s bedrock floor included fragments of local and imported pottery, many iron and bronze nails, rings, many coins—including over a dozen coins from the fourth year of the Great Revolt (Fig. 7)—a small bronze spoon, bone tools, brightly colored fresco fragments, a bitumen table stand, and stoneware. The layer of finds was overlain by a pile of soot-blackened rubble from the collapsed vault (Fig. 8), which was in turn overlain by legionary roof tiles. The collapsed debris layers probably date to the final days of the Great Revolt and the destruction of the city. Above these layers was a soil fill containing numerous finds, including potsherds, an intact Herodian oil lamp, glass and stoneware fragments, worked bone tools and coins. The two roof tiles found on top of the soil fill in the storeroom postdate the Second Temple period.
North of the storeroom was a wall built of well-dressed, hard limestone blocks, at the foot of which was an installation (0.5 × 2.0 m) coated with gray hydraulic plaster, built on an east–west alignment. The installation extended to the north and disappeared beneath Tif’eret Yisra’el Street (not excavated). The many finds on the floor from the Second Temple period comprised mostly pottery sherds and coins from the fourth year of the Great Revolt. Another installation coated with gray plaster, to the east of the storeroom, was almost entirely destroyed by the synagogue wall that cut the storeroom, and only its southern side was preserved.
In the northern part of the area, another wall (preserved height 3 m) was coated with hydraulic plaster. The upper course of the wall exhibited the bottom of a southward-springing vault that was cut by an Ottoman wall; the wall was probably part of a cistern. The many finds from the Second Temple period retrieved in the soil fill next to the wall included coins from the fourth year of the Great Revolt, remains of frescoes, stoneware, pieces of bronze, and numerous potsherds.
Stratum III—Byzantine Period. Remains of a building with a large rectangular room (4.0 × 5.5 m) and part of another room to its west, were uncovered. The walls were built of dressed stones coated with white plaster; some of the stones retaining colored plaster. The room was paved with a white mosaic floor with colorful motifs, including red flowers; only three patches were partially preserved. Two walls in the north of the area were cut into by the wall of an Ottoman water cistern. The walls, preserved for three to four courses, were built of well-dressed stones, one on a north–south alignment and the other on an east–west alignment. The two walls may have formed the corner of a large building that probably extended northwards beyond the limits of the excavation, beneath Tif’eret Yisra’el Street (not excavated). Many Byzantine potsherds were also retrieved here.
Stratum II—Mamluk Period. Remains of a large, well-built structure dating from the Mamluk period were excavated beneath the floor of the synagogue’s basement. The building had an entrance in its eastern wall and was accessed via an alley paved with hard limestone, some reddish in color. The entrance had well-preserved doorjambs and a threshold descending to the building’s thick plaster floor. The plaster floor was damaged by the synagogue’s central pier, but remnants were preserved, mostly north of the pier but also east and south of it. The building’s northern wall was built of two rows of dressed hard limestone blocks whose northern face was coated with white plaster, attesting to the existence of an additional room to the north. The well-built western and southern walls of the building were preserved to a considerable height and were coated with white plaster. The walls were probably Byzantine-period walls, reused and elevated in the Mamluk period, along with raising the floor of the building. Two openings in the building’s western wall led to two side rooms, the northern of which was paved with a thick plaster floor and the southern one contained the remains of a kiln or a large oven. Inside the building, finds dating from the Mamluk period were discovered, including the handle of a jar stamped ‘Allah Muhammad’ in Arabic.
At the eastern end of the area was a deep cistern (3.5 × 3.5 m, depth 7 m; Fig. 9) with a vaulted roof. At the beginning of the present century, the southern part of the vault was damaged by construction work carried out in a shop east of the site and the northern part of the cistern was cut into by an east–west wall. The vault was dismantled due to its precarious condition and the cistern was completely cleaned out. The cistern was coated with reddish hydraulic plaster and had a small settling pit in its floor. The building debris filling the cistern contained a few architectural elements and building stones from the synagogue. The structure of the cistern, the shape of the vault, the type of plaster and its stratigraphic location date it to the Mamluk period.
A wide wall (width 1.5 m) discovered in the north of the area abutted a floor made of large stone slabs. A coin retrieved when the stone slabs were dismantled dates the floor and the wall to the Mamluk period; large quantities of glazed Mamluk pottery, mainly bowls, were also recovered.
Stratum I—Ottoman Period (Tif’eret Yisra’el Synagogue). A long narrow cistern (c. 1.0 × 1.5 m, depth 4 m) in the area’s raised southern part was preserved intact. Another cistern (1.70 × 8.25 m, depth 4 m), located to its north, was coated with gray hydraulic plaster and contained numerous building stones, probably from the vault that had covered it. In the center of the synagogue was a central pier that had supported the building’s vaults. When the pier was dismantled, it was found to contain a water installation coated with thick hydraulic plaster and a system of interconnecting lead and iron pipes. The dismantled pier stones were numbered and retained for reuse in the synagogue’s restoration. To the north of the pier, several installations were built in the synagogue’s basement (Fig. 10). Near the synagogue’s eastern wall (not preserved) was a plastered oval installation with a covered water channel to its south that led from the water installation in the central pier. To the south of the channel, a floor paved with small stone slabs abutted the eastern and central piers of the synagogue. A brick stove to the north of the channel may have been used to heat the synagogue. The stove contained a thick layer of ash and was covered with an iron grate. The stove was accessed from the north, from a room entered via three steps descending from the west. To the west of the synagogue’s central pier was a drainage channel covered with large stone slabs; it had been cut by the synagogue’s miqva‘ot that lay exposed in the south of the area and that were probably built at a later stage. An additional cistern (2 × 10 m, depth 4 m), built on an east–west alignment and coated with gray hydraulic plaster, was cleaned out on the synagogue’s northern edge; it was covered over with vaults that were dismantled at the outset of the excavation. The cistern’s walls (length 10.0 m, width 1.5 m) were partly founded on the earlier Mamluk and Byzantine walls and partly on the bedrock. The excavation of the soil fills accumulated in the northern and southern cisterns after their destruction in 1948, yielded finds from the synagogue, such as fragments of glass chandeliers and parts of stoves, including two ornate metal pieces.
The excavation in the Tif’eret Yisra’el Synagogue compound yielded rich and impressive remains, from the earliest eighth century BCE settlement on the southwestern hill to the synagogue’s destruction when the Jewish Quarter fell to the Jordanian Legion in May 1948. A storeroom and a cistern from the Second Temple period yielded numerous finds, including a stone weight bearing an Aramaic inscription. The Second Temple-period remains are probably of a large house, similar to the luxurious villa excavated by Avigad in the Herodian Quarter, a few meters southeast of the Tif’eret Yisra’el Synagogue. The dozens of coins from the fourth year of the Great Revolt suggest that the building was abandoned early in 69/70 CE, shortly before the destruction of the Temple and the burning of the Jewish Quarter in the month of Elul 70 CE.