Archaeologists Discover One of the World’s Oldest Synagogues in the Black Sea region

Volnoe Delo Foundation—Phanagoria archaeologists have unearthed the foundational structure and wall outlines of the synagogue on the Taman Peninsula, along the Black Sea coast. Inside, they found marble menorahs, liturgy tables, and marble stele fragments. One stele from the 5th century AD bears the Greek inscription “synagogue”. This, along with earlier discoveries including marble tablets inscribed with “house of prayer” and “synagogue” dating to 16 and 51 A.D., respectively, establishes the Phanagoria synagogue as one of the world’s oldest, operating since at least the early 1st century AD.

The Phanagoria synagogue is a rectangular structure, measuring 21 meters by 6 meters, with two chambers each exceeding 60 square meters. The interior boasted marble columns and liturgy tables, showcasing intricate decorative details. The walls were adorned with paintings and tiles. The ornamentation of the marble menorahs discovered within the synagogue displays unique characteristics that differentiate them from their counterparts in the Near East. The Phanagoria synagogue existed until the middle of the 6th century, when the city was pillaged and devastated by local barbarian tribes.

The synagogue can be traced back to the end of the Second Temple period, a historical epoch spanning from 516 BC to 70 AD. It is characterized by the religious centrality of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, which was constructed on the ruins of the First Temple following its obliteration by the Babylonians. All religious rituals were conducted within the confines of the Temple, rendering synagogues a rarity, primarily constructed by Diaspora communities residing far from Jerusalem. The earliest synagogues date back to the 3rd century BC, while their construction only saw a notable increase towards the 3rd century AD. Consequently, the Phanagoria synagogue stands as one of the earliest examples globally.

The presence of a robust Jewish community within the city already in the 1st century AD is corroborated by depictions of menorahs on amphorae and tombstones from that era. Historical records from the medieval period also affirm the notion that Jews constituted a significant portion of the city’s inhabitants. Notably, Theophanes, an 8th-century Byzantine chronicler, and Ibn-Hordadbeha, a 9th-century Arabian geographer, both referred to Phanagoria as a “Jewish city”. Contemporary historians believe that the Jewish community of Phanagoria mirrored the city’s cosmopolitan character.


Above and below: the Phanagoria synagogue excavation site and some of the remains uncovered at the site. Courtesy Phanagoria Archaeological Expedition and the Volnoe Delo Foundation




About the Phanagoria archaeological expedition

The Phanagoria expedition, led by the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is currently excavating the ancient Greek city of Phanagoria. Supported by the Oleg Deripaska Volnoe Delo Foundation since 2004, these excavations encompass 7,000 square meters. A team of 250 archaeologists, students, and volunteers conducts these annual explorations.

Founded by Greek settlers on the Taman Gulf’s shores around the middle of the 6th century BC, Phanagoria encompasses an ancient settlement and necropolis across 900 hectares, featuring over 700 mounds. The city flourished for over 1,500 years and was one of the Bosporan Kingdom’s two capitals.

The treasures discovered within Phanagoria’s mounds are housed in esteemed institutions like the Hermitage and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, as well as museums in Great Britain and Germany. The expedition’s findings have been showcased at international scientific gatherings in Germany, France, Denmark, Greece, the United States. In 2009, the uncovering of Mithridates VI’s palace earned a spot on Archaeology Magazine’s list of the world’s ten most remarkable discoveries.

About Volnoe Delo Foundation
Volnoe Delo is one of the largest non-profit organizations in Russia involved in charity, patronage and volunteer projects. The foundation addresses social issues, supports education and the sciences, and helps preserve the country’s cultural and historical heritage. The Foundation has supported more than 500 projects in 50 different regions of Russia to date. The projects’ beneficiaries include around 90,000 school children, 4,000 teachers, 8,000 students from universities and vocational schools, 4,000 scientists, and over 1,200 educational, scientific, cultural, healthcare and sporting institutions.


Article Source: Volnoe Delo Foundation news release



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