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Huntington University professor may have found earliest known synagogue

Friday, June 22, 2012 - 8:26 am

Mark R. Fairchild, a professor at Huntington University, has spent the past 15 years studying ancient ruins in Turkey. Recently, his discovery of first and second century B.C. synagogues have placed him in the spotlight in one of the most widely read archeology publications in the world, Biblical Archaeology Review.

Fairchild is a professor and chair of the Department of Bible and Religion. He has an interest in the ruins of ancient temples and churches and specializes in the New Testaments, Greek and Roman studies at Huntington University.

This year alone he will travel to Turkey three times. When he came across the first synagogue, he was on sabbatical in the spring of 2007 while exploring the ancient Roman province of Cilicia, St. Paul's home district. He was looking at the ruins of a coastal town of Korykos, an early Roman city, known today as Kizkalesi. An Armenian castle was rebuilt over what used to be an earlier fortress and a Roman forum at that site.

While looking over the inner of a fortress wall, doing a surface survey, he discovered a door lintel about two feet off the ground, with a menorah carved into one corner.

“Synagogues are mostly commonly identified with a menorah carved into the lintel,” Fairchild said.

Moving 4-5 miles inland from Korykos in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains, Fairchild also explored Çatiören, where he discovered another synagogue.

When he returned from that trip he did some research to find out if anyone had found anything in that area before, and discovered in 1890 an English explorer and his wife did a surface survey, like Fairchild, and discovered the same site of Çatiören. The explorer described the same inscription that Fairchild has seen on the Hermes Temple there.

On a return visit to the area he examined the necropolis (or cemetery), at Korykos and discovered several sarcophagi carved with menorahs as well. He discovered two in January, and on his May through June trip he discovered four more. He believes there was a large Jewish population in this area at one time. To date he has discovered six total sarcophagi, but he is positive there are many more.

“Ancient literary sources indicate that many Jews settled in Cilicia during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The presence of these tombs corroborates this testimony,” Fairchild said.

Fairchild said these are significant finds because until now ancient scholars had said there had been a large settlement of Jews in the area, but no concrete evidence had been discovered. If the synagogue at Çatiören is of the Hellistic period, first or second century B.C., as Fairchild believes the evidence suggests, this would be the earliest synagogue ever discovered anywhere in the world. Fairchild said it is possible that the Apostle Paul could have done missionary work in this area. Apostle Paul was said to use the strategy of sharing the gospel message with fellow Jews at synagogues.

Although it might seem odd no one else has run across these ruins before, except over a hundred years ago, Fairchild said Turkey has never been explored by modern archeologists the way other countries in that region have.

“Very few of these areas have even been touched by modern archeologists,” Fairchild said.

Previously, Fairchild said, the Turkish government had no interest in opening up the country to western tourism or archeologists.

“They really don't know the treasure they are sitting on,” Fairchild said.

The Turkish government is now thinking about promoting and developing these sites. They have an interest in joining the European Union and developing their tourism. Fairchild gave a presentation to the Turkish government in January showing them some of the pictures of the sites he has visited. He said they were amazed and had no idea of the richness of historical ruins in their country.

Fairchild said Turkey's antiquities are more numerous, spectacular, and untouched then what he has seen anywhere. Currently the government doesn't have the money to appoint people to oversee these sites. Some of the ruins Fairchild has visited show signs of illegal digs. Fairchild said some of the Turkish people know there is treasure underground and are digging illegally and selling it on eBay or on the black market.

“One way or another Turkey is emerging from the underground, both legally and illegally,” Fairchild said.