The remains of one of the world’s oldest known synagogues have been unearthed in the ancient Greek city of Phanagoria near Kuban on the Black Sea coast of southern Russia. The foundations and bases of the walls were discovered by archaeologists of the Phanagoria Archaeological Expedition. Marble menorahs and fragments of steles inscribed “synagogue” in Hebrew and Greek, identified the building.
The synagogue was a rectangular structure 70 feet long by 20 feet wide. It was divided into two large rooms, each more than 645 square feet in area. It was richly decorated with marble columns and liturgical tables. The walls were vividly painted. The roof was tiled. The marble menorahs found inside the building have unique decorations not found in Middle Eastern synagogues.
The colony of Phanagoria was founded by Ionians from Teos fleeing the forces of Cyrus the Great of Persia in the 6th century B.C. By the 1st century A.D., it was home to a large, well-established Jewish community. Both the 8th century Byzantine historian Theophanes and the 9th century Persian geographer and postmaster Ibn Khordadbeh, described Phanagoria as a largely Jewish city. Theophanes mentions Bulgar tribes moving in the direction of “Phanagoria and of the Jews that live there” in his Chronologia for the year 678/9.
The synagogue was in use from the 1st century until the middle of the 6th century when the city was razed by invading Huns. It was founded in the late Second Temple period (516 B.C. – 70 A.D.) when Solomon’s Temple, destroyed in the Neo-Babylonian Empire’s siege of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., was rebuilt after the Jewish return from the Babylonian captivity. The existence of a synagogue as a Jewish house of communal worship, study and prayer dates to this period. Diaspora Jews living and dying far from Jerusalem were able to build their own consecrated spaces for religious services and ceremonies that had previously been the exclusive province of the hereditary priesthood of the direct descendants of Aaron (Moses’ brother) in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The earliest known synagogues date to the 3rd century B.C. and only a dozen or so are known in Israel and the Greco-Roman world from the Second Temple period. Phanagoria’s synagogue first appears on the archaeological record in an inscription recording the manumission of two slaves on the condition that they show “devotion and diligence” toward the synagogue. The inscription dates to 16 A.D. It is incomplete, but a later inscription from 51 A.D. includes the same terms and establishes the connection between manumission records and the synagogue. It reads:
Under the reign of King Cotys, in the year 348 on the first of the month of Xandikos: Sogos (and) Anos, sons of Psycharios (state that) Karsandanos and Karagos and Metroteimos were released in the synagogue, and are unassailable and cannot be hindered except that they show diligence and devotion toward the synagogue, under the joint guardianship of the congregation of the Jews.
The Phanagoria synagogue is therefore one of the oldest in the world, built hundreds of years before synagogue construction began to flourish in the 3rd century A.D.
“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,” says Bunyatyan. “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.”