site located 4 km (2.5 mi.) north-northeast of Safed in Upper Galilee (33°2′ N, 35°30′ E; map reference 197 × 267). Situated at 650 m above sea level on the summit of a small hill opposite Moshav Dalton, Nabratein lies along a deep ravine on its north side (Naḥal Dalton, or Wadi ῾Ammuqa) that empties eastward into the Hulah Valley at 0.5 km south of Hazor. A perennial spring flows some 250 m southeast of the ruin. Another small site, Khirbet en-Nabrah, which has not been excavated, lies close to the spring and no doubt accounts for the dual form of the name Nabratein (Frowald Hüttenmeister and Reeg Gottfried, Die antiken Synagogen in Israel; Tübinger Atlas des vorderen Orient, Beiheft BII, vol. 1, Wiesbaden, 1977, pp. 343–347).
Nabratein's ruins were first discovered by the British explorers Claude R. Conder and H. H. Kitchener, who noted the inscription on the synagogue's lintel, which is decorated with a menorah in a wreath. The inscription was deciphered and published by Nahman Avigad In 1960 (see Naveh, 1978, p. 31). It is unique in Hebrew epigraphy because its date, 564 CE, is reckoned from the destruction of the Second Temple In 70 CE: “(According) to the number four hundred and ninety-four years after the destruction, the house was (re)built during the office of Hanina son of Lezer and Luliana son of Yudan.” The inscription is incised on a Roman-period architectural fragment. Its decipherment led to a great deal of confusion until recent excavation could demonstrate that a resettlement and rebuilding occurred at the site in the late Byzantine–Early Arab period.
Excavations conducted In 1980 and 1981 were sponsored by the American Schools of Oriental Research and directed by Eric M. Meyers. They focused on the synagogue and its building context, on areas to the northwest presumed to be domestic or agricultural/industrial, and on a smaller area to the southwest in front of the synagogue entryway that did not appear to be a “public” space. Very little debris had accumulated on the site, which is located in a very isolated spot in a reforested area of the Safed mountains. Avigad had removed the incised lintel to the Israel Museum, but its findspot was known; the central portal of the synagogue on the south side was visible.
Results of the excavation of the synagogue area were surprising and significant. A series of increasingly larger buildings had been built there, which stratigraphic excavation revealed. The oldest and smallest building, synagogue I, dated to the second century CE (c. 135–250), is the oldest post-70 CE, securely dated synagogue in Israel. [See Synagogues.] Its dimensions are 11.2 × 9.35 m; its entrance is in the southern wall; and it is a broadhouse building. Benches along its eastern and western walls utilized elements of the older structures below it. It probably had four internal columns, but there is no solid evidence for them in this period. The roof span, however, is sufficiently long to suggest columns. Two stone bemas, or platforms, adorned the southern wall, and the possible imprint of a reader's platform was detected in the plastered floor.
Synagogue II (c. 250–363) was converted to a basilica with six columns (11.2 × 13.85 m), increasing the internal space of the building by 48 percent (see figure 1). The twin bemas were extensively decorated in this phase. The bema at the southwest is adorned with a beautiful Torah shrine whose gabled roof was supported by two rampant lions with a niche for the eternal light carved as a half dome or shell in the key of the pediment. This unique discovery resolved the longstanding question about where in ancient Sacred Jewish architecture the Ark of the Law had been placed (see figure 2). The second bema, in the southeast corner, may have held a menorah or served as the reader's platform.
It is clear that the site was abandoned in about 350–363 as a result of economic hardship and the earthquake of 363. The synagogue was rebuilt in the final phase of occupation, as is demonstrated by the inscription on the lintel (i.e., 564), which lasted into the eighth century, or about 700, when synagogue III was enlarged to an eight-column basilica (11.2 × 16.8 m), 21 percent larger than in the previous phase. A portable wooden Ark of the Law was used in this final phase of the synagogue. This surprising rebuilding, after an abandonment of almost two hundred years, suggests that there was some sort of communal remembrance of the synagogue ruin, which is in keeping with Jewish custom.
The best-preserved Early Roman remains from the site came from the large structure attached to the perimeter wall on the northwest of the synagogue and some 15 m beyond the western areas adjacent to the synagogue. The bedrock installations suggest that the rooms there were basements remodeled and reused in the late second–third centuries. It is not clear whether the area was industrial or domestic. The site's relatively small size (less than a hectare) suggests that the village was not much more than a way station connecting inland Upper Galilee with the nearby Jordan Valley via Wadi Dalton.
The area southwest of the synagogue produced a unique Late Byzantine ceramic piece that depicts the Ark of the Law with the eternal light. The room in which it was found may have served some liturgical function in connection with the synagogue: it may have been where the washing of the feet of the priests took place. The area immediately to the west of the synagogue produced several architectural fragments of interest: part of a lion's body, a lamb's head, and a bird's head, suggesting a loosening of the conservative Jewish attitude toward representational art in the Byzantine period. Numerous impressed sigillata bowls with animals were found in a Late Roman or Byzantine context.
The results of the Nabratein excavations modestly revised views regarding conservatism in Upper Galilee in the Roman through the Byzantine periods, with respect both to art and trade. Because of its location so close to the Jordan Valley, it would not have been oriented to trade with the Phoenician coast. The material culture of the site reflects all of the changes above. Surface sherds, which may have been washed in from the hills above, indicate the presence of an earlier occupation in the area in the Early Bronze Age II–III, Iron II, Persian, and Hellenistic periods. Medieval sherds, from after 700, were found at the second site, some 250 m to the southeast, and dated to the early and late Arab periods.
- Meyers, Carol L., and Eric M. Meyers. “The Ark in Art: A Ceramic Rendering of the Torah Shrine from Nabratein.” Eretz-Israel 16 (1982): 176–185.
- Meyers, Eric M., et al. “The Ark of Nabratein: A First Glance.” Biblical Archaeologist 44.4 (1981): 237–243.
- Meyers, Eric M., et al. “Preliminary Report on the 1980 Excavations at en-Nabratein, Israel.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 244 (1981): 1–25.
- Meyers, Eric M., et al. “Second Preliminary Report on the 1981 Excavations at en-Nabratein, Israel.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 246 (1982): 35–54.
- Naveh, Joseph. On Stone and Mosaic: The Aramaic and Hebrew Inscriptions from Ancient Synagogues. Tel Aviv, 1978. See pp. 31–33.
Eric M. Meyers