The lost synagogues of Tiberias
Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Dieter Vieweger / Biblical-Archaeological Institute
Photo: Sebastian Jarych

The lost synagogues of Tiberias

The Wuppertal theologian and archaeologist Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c.. Dieter Vieweger, director of the Biblical-Archaeological Institute of the University of Wuppertal, searches for early synagogues in Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee

For more than two decades now, German theologian and archaeologist Dieter Vieweger, director of the Biblical-Archaeological Institute of the University of Berg, has been living and working in Jerusalem. Between February and October, the busy scholar digs on the grounds of Mount Zion in his capacity as director of the German Protestant Institute for Antiquities of the Holy Land (DEIAHL). The tasks of the institute there include scientific research on the archaeology and cultural history of the Holy Land, with special emphasis on the biblical periods and the emergence of Christianity, including its own excavation projects. "For me, it is a very special honor to be allowed to excavate in the city of Jerusalem at all," says the Chemnitz native. On Mount Zion, the southwestern hill of Jerusalem, outside today's Old City walls, the institute has been excavating important areas of the ancient Israelite capital since 2015. "By the 8th century B.C., Jerusalem had extended and expanded to that point. We are researching the history until the 12th century AD." After that, the urban area shifts north toward what is now the Old City. This is completely built-up and can hardly be studied archaeologically.

Excavations despite Corona crisis

Corona has affected all archaeologists, he said. "At the beginning of the 2020 crisis, all flights were suddenly canceled," he says, and his team of researchers found themselves alone in Jerusalem, banned from going out and only able to leave the site once a week for shopping. "But then we got into relatively good waters through the Corona period because all our excavations were possible, as long as we used our own staff." Even the Israeli excavations were dormant during this time, as they were working primarily with foreign volunteers who could not enter the country.

The fact that the institute could not receive guests during this time meant that its staff was 'forced` to work more intensively on their doctorates, he reports with a laugh. "You can take something good out of the bad, too," he adds, and himself devoted himself during the curfew period to his book series on the 'History of the Biblical World'. "I wrote two new volumes - Volume 4: Late Antiquity (250 - 650 A.D.); Volume 5: Umayyad Period (638 - 750 A.D.) - for the History of the Biblical World, which came out in October 22. Corona has changed our institute life, but it has not diminished our work."

I can't think of a nicer job....

The job as a digging archaeologist involves extremely sweaty, physical labor. Vieweger has hauled tons of debris in his life and still says, "It's an exciting job, and I can't think of a nicer one," and that's mostly to do with the variety, he says. "Now in the winter, I'm sitting at my desk giving lectures, writing emails and applying for research projects, etc. That's when I live the usual scientist's life of a 'normal professor.' But then, yes, I get to travel to the Holy Land for three quarters of a year, and as an archaeologist, I have the great advantage of being physically active." In four to six continuous weeks, which is how long the normal excavation campaigns last, he says, one concentrates exclusively on the excavations on site with all their hopes and disappointments. "On top of that, there's life in a foreign country, in the glaring sunlight and with the opportunity to visit places steeped in history," the 64-year-old enthuses and, describing his living situation high above the Old City with a view across the Dead Sea to Jordan, adds with a smile: "I eke out a living in a house of the German Kaiser."

Working in an environment far from peace

Excavations in the Middle East are difficult; you have to do justice to the host countries and, above all, be impartial as an archaeologist. "It's quite dramatic at times," Vieweger explains of the situation. We work simultaneously in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. We are the only institute that is allowed to work in all these regions at all," and this despite the political tensions, which would not diminish. "In many cases, political interests are also coupled with religious convictions, which only complicates the situation. The air 'does not smell of peace' at the moment." Of course, there are always many tolerant and balancing people who support DEI. "But now we have also been here not just since yesterday, but since the inauguration of the Church of the Redeemer on October 31, 1898 by the German Emperor Wilhelm II, which is why we are also celebrating the 125th anniversary this year. Everyone in Jerusalem knows that we stand for tolerance and do not take sides against others."

The Jewish synagogues in Tiberias.

One of the focal points of Vieweger's work over the past two years has been the excavation in Tiberias, a city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, led by Vieweger's wife, Assist. Prof. Dr. Katja Soennecken, in cooperation with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "That's where the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious history is concerned, i.e. peaceful and also combative coexistence of religions in this city up to the 12th century." This year, the excavation team is looking for the Jewish synagogues. "In addition to a pagan temple, in addition to the churches and the main mosque, there must have been synagogues in Tiberias, where - as we know - the Mishnah was completed and the Jerusalem Talmud was written." So this is where significant Jewish religious history occurred! "And even the system of vowels not originally recorded in Hebrew, written in and around consonants, all these dashes and dots, were invented in the synagogues of Tiberias." Although it was known that these teaching houses existed there, he said, not a single one of these synagogues had yet been discovered. "Where were they? Were they self-conscious 'beacons' or small inconspicuous buildings? How did the faithful hold their own with Muslims and Christians there over the centuries?" the scholar asks. "We're looking this year west of the Cardo (The Cardo in Roman times is always the main road running north-south, editor's note), where no excavations have been possible so far." The expert also hopes that this will provide further insights into the lives and activities of people during this period. The future of DEIAHL in Jerusalem and Amman

Dieter Vieweger has made many contacts in all his years on site and knows what is possible and feasible. He will retire in 2024. How will the work in the Holy Land continue then, or rather, who will continue his research? "That's a pretty important question, and it has been decided in the meantime," he says. "Of course, I would like to leave the institute in good hands. This year, a new professorship has been established at the WWU in Münster. The German Protestant Institute (DEI) will then probably continue to be run from Münster. The new post holder will carry out her work on the excavation sites in Israel and Jordan together with me until 2026, after which she will hopefully take over as director. Then continuity would be assured."

Personally, the busy scientist may then be drawn to South America to do archaeology again, then as an emeritus professor. Until then, however, he will continue to lead several excavation campaigns in the Middle East. Vieweger will also talk about his "excavations in the "Holy Land" on November 16, 2023 in the Theater am Engelsgarten in the university series "Stadtgespräch".

Uwe Blass

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Dieter Vieweger is Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology at the Kirchliche Hochschule Wuppertal, Visiting Professor of Archaeology and Ancient History at the Privatuniversität Witten-Herdecke, Lecturer at the Westfälische Wilhelms Universität Münster, Executive Director of the two institutes of the German Protestant Institute for Ancient Studies of the Holy Land in Jerusalem and Amman, representative of the Provost in Jerusalem and coordinator of Protestant educational work in the Holy City, as well as Director of the Biblical Archaeological Institute at Bergische Universität.

With Terra X, he creates films on topics such as "Did Jesus really exist?", "What secret is hidden under the Temple Mount?", "King Herod - Brutal Murderer or Peacemaker?" and "Qumran - the Mysterious Dead Sea Scrolls" - all to be discovered via You Tube/Terra X (ZDF).

More infos about #uniwuppertal: