Mark Fairchild had just clambered up a rocky, overgrown hillside in a rugged area of southern Turkey in the summer of 2007 when something caught his eye.
Among stone ruins dating to the time of the ancient Greeks, he saw a weathered carving of a seven-branched, candelabra-like symbol on a large stone over a doorway more than half buried in rubble.
It kind of shocked me, says Fairchild, who is a professor and chairman of the Department of Bible and Religion at Huntington University. My first reaction was Am I seeing what I’m seeing?’ My second reaction was Has anyone else ever seen this?’
As it turned out, what Fairchild saw was likely a depiction of a menorah, a Jewish symbol dating to the time of King Solomon. And, as an experienced documenter of ruins in Turkey, he now believes what he found is an unexcavated synagogue, perhaps the earliest ever discovered, and a site that may shed light on both Jewish and early Christian history.
Fairchild’s discovery, which he details in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, came in the ruins of the ancient city of Catioren (pronounced ch-eye-tee-or-en), which lies about 4 miles from southern Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and 35 miles from the region’s capital in early Christian times, Tarsus.
Tarsus is familiar to Christians as the hometown of the apostle Paul, who, as a Jewish leader named Saul, had persecuted followers of Jesus before becoming one after a mystical encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.
The New Testament says that, after his conversion, Paul traveled to Cilicia (pronounced sah-lish-ah), the region where Catioren is located. Fairchild believes that because Paul is known to have preached among the Jews, he may well have preached at the synagogue at Catioren and possibly at a second suspected synagogue he found in the nearby city of Korykis, now Kizkalesi, about 45 miles southwest of Tarsus.
Not even in Israel is there a synagogue that dates back as early as the Hellenistic period between 150 and 325 B.C., when it appears the Catioren synagogue was built, Fairchild says. That’s part of what’s so exciting about this.
Fairchild says that after Paul was forced out of Jerusalem for his beliefs, there is a 10-year period of his life about which little is known. The suspected synagogues may fill in the gap.
I think, knowing Paul, he was not a person sitting on his hands doing nothing. I think he was going around (Cilicia) preaching and starting churches, Fairchild says. I think chances are really good that he was there preaching the Gospel message.
Fairchild says Catioren’s ruins are virtually untouched, but he is not the first to document them. In the late 19th century, he says, British archaeologist J. Theodore Bent explored the city and made copies of inscriptions that mention Sabbath keepers and other phrases that appear to refer to Jews.
But Bent did not mention a synagogue in his writings, Fairchild says, perhaps because he did not see it. Bent himself wrote that Catioren’s almost impenetrable brushwood and forest and rocks in a canyon-like area known as rough Cilicia nearly hid the ruins.
In that regard, not much has changed, Fairchild says – except perhaps the rubble has gotten deeper, raising the doorway inscription closer to eye level.
Fairchild, 57, says he had to crawl into the suspected synagogue to document its features.
What appears to be a carved-stone basin, with holes in the rock above it to funnel water, lies just inside the building’s entry and may have been a mikva used for ritual washing. A stone niche exists on the structure’s southern wall, facing Jerusalem – a logical spot to place a copy of the Torah, the Jewish scriptures, Fairchild says.
And, an exterior stone stairway ascends to what was likely a second floor or balcony for women or believers in the Jewish God who were not Jews, he says.
Another carving over the doorway with the menorah suggests a lulav, a palm branch associated with the Jewish feast of Succoth.
At the site in Korykos, Fairchild found a more stylized menorah in a similar doorway location and about a half-dozen unexcavated tombs that also bear the symbol, indicating they may hold the remains of Jews.
Fairchild says many writings from the ancient world confirm the presence in Cilicia of Jews, who began a mass migration from the Holy Land around the time of the Babylonian conquest and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C. After the Babylonians were defeated, King Cyrus the Great of Persia in 516 B.C. issued a decree allowing Jews to return. But many stayed in the places to which they had migrated, Fairchild says.
Excavations of the synagogue ruins, he says, could lead to more knowledge about Jewish worship and burial practices just before and after the start of the Christian era, as well as the different faith groups’ complex relationships.
But that will take money, time and expertise and the cooperation of the Turkish government, which has only recently become more welcoming of scholars. But Fairchild says he’s had interest in his findings, part of a survey of ruins he has been compiling for several years, from biblical archaeologists and the American Jewish community.
If this (Catioren) is the earliest known synagogue, this is very important to the community, Fairchild says, adding that lack of interest among the region’s Muslim residents in Jewish and Christian sites and their remote location has kept them pristine.
When you see sites like this, it’s eye-popping, spectacular, he says. There’s a lot that needs to be done. We’re just getting started.