The monumental synagogue was the center of Jewish religious life at Sardis during the Late Roman period. It is the largest known synagogue of the ancient world.
Discovered in 1962, the building and its decorations have been partly restored. The synagogue was entered from the east into a colonnaded forecourt. The forecourt was roofed around the sides but open to the sky in the center. Beyond is the main hall of assembly, over 50 m long and large enough to hold nearly a thousand people. Massive stone piers supported the roof of the main hall at a height of about 14 m above the floor.
The synagogue occupied the corner of the Roman bath-gymnasium, converting part of this public building into a Jewish house of worship. The mosaic floors, furnishings, and marble wall decorations were installed at different times; most of those which remain are from the 4th and 5th centuries. The synagogue was abandoned along with much of the rest of the city in the early seventh century, reflecting a general trend in Western Anatolia.
Wall Decoration in the Main Hall
In the main hall, the installation of marble wall decorations began in the 4th century. The work took several generations to complete. The donors’ names are inscribed in Greek on marble plaques; one such donor inscription is restored. The inscription records: “I with my wife Regina and our children (in fulfillment of a vow) executed from the gifts of almighty God all the skoutlosis of the (section of wall?) and the painting (of the ceiling or upper wall).” Many of the donors held the honorary title “citizen of Sardis.” Several donors are identified as city councilors or holders of other government offices.
Floor mosaics constitute the most extensive part of the Synagogue’s decoration and cover a total area of some 1400 sq m. Their arrangement reflects the architecture of the main hall, with large rectangular panels occupying the seven structural bays and side panels set between adjacent piers. Brief inscriptions naming individual donors originally lay at the center of the large panels. The mosaics in the forecourt consist of rectangular panels spanning the width of the four porticoes. Apart from the vase and peacocks in the apse, the mosaics are exclusively geometric in design, with small polychrome tesserae forming complex interlocking patterns. Decorative motifs, like the overall arrangement, are known elsewhere at Sardis and at other sites in buildings of the 4th-6th centuries.
The large krater or urn at the center of the forecourt, a replica of the marble original, was a fountain at which congregants washed their hands before prayer. Water was supplied by clay pipes below the floor. An ingenious valve controlled the water flow. The surrounding pool was originally paved with flat stones, probably marble.