The city of Sardis, formerly the capital of the Lydian empire, had a long history as a thriving commercial centre, thanks to its location on the main road system near the junction of routes from the coastal cities of Ephesos and Smyrna. Although little evidence has survived concerning guilds there, we do know of a group of Roman merchants and a guild of slave-traders from inscriptions. The latter group joined with the assembly of citizens in the first century in order to honour a prominent benefactor: “According to the decree passed by the assembly, the people of the Sardians honoured T. Julius Lepidus, the emperor-loving high-priest of both Asia and the city and foremost man of the city, because of his love of glory and unmatched goodwill towards the homeland. Those engaged in business in the slave-market set up this honour from their own resources” (SEG 46 1524). There were also associations devoted to Apollo, Zeus, Attis, and the Jewish God (both Jews and Christians) in the Roman period.

Despite its economic advantages, Sardis was also located in an area susceptible to earthquakes. As both Tacitus and Strabo record, the massive earthquake of 17 CE was particularly devastating for Sardis (Strabo, Geography 12.8.18; Tacitus, Annals 2.47). A massive re-building program was begun with the financial assistance of emperor Tiberius who provided the city with ten million sesterces. Of particular interest to us here is the construction of the bath-gymnasium complex in the wake of this re-building effort, which eventually came to house the local Jewish group (by the late-third or early-fourth century). Like the theatre and stadium, the bath-gymnasium was an important institution within the Greek cities of Asia Minor. It was in multi-purpose bath-gymnasia that organizations of boys (paides), youths (epheboi), young men (neoi), and elders (gerontes) engaged in education, discussion, exercise, and various other social activities.

Construction on the foundations of the bath-gymnasium centre at Sardis began in the first century and continued into the second and third centuries. An inscription on a statue base, which was dedicated to emperor Lucius Verus, suggests a date of about 166 CE for the completion of the main structures of the bath-gymnasium complex, including the Roman baths in the western end. Beginning in the early third century, the so-called “marble court” (designed for imperial cult activities -- see photo) and the colonnaded exercise area (palaestra) were added. There were also shops flanking the southern side of the complex in use by the second century; the shops presently visible after excavations are from a later time in the Byzantine era, however. With the completion of the main structures, the complex measured 120 metres by 170 metres (a large building for the time).

Ultimately, this bath-gymnasium complex came to house the local Jewish association (synodos) (see photo of main hall above). The historian Josephus records two ancient documents concerning the earlier history of this Jewish group. In one, a Roman official writes a letter to the city of Sardis (in about 49 BCE), acknowledging the Jews’ right to gather together “in accordance with their native laws” and to have “a place of their own” (Antiquities. 14.259-61 [LCL]). A second related decree by the governing bodies (the council and the people) of Sardis confirms this picture of the Jews as a recognized group within the city (Antiquities 14.259-61). In this document, the people of Sardis decided “that a place be given them [the Jews] in which they may gather together with their wives and children and offer their ancestral prayers and sacrifices to God.” The place was to be “set apart by the magistrates for them” and the “market-officials” were “charged with the duty” of ensuring the availability of (kosher) food for the community’s meals. So this Jewish association was already considered part of the life of the city at an early point but continued to maintain its distinctive Jewish practices and identity. The archeological evidence of the synagogue in later centuries confirms the fact that these Jews continued to feel at home within the city in later years, despite the peculiarity of their devotion to one God--and to that God’s law--in a polytheistic context.

According to Andrew Seager (who led the excavations), the south-eastern portion of the bath-gymnasium complex went through four main stages of development, ultimately housing the local Jewish synagogue (the description here is based primarily on Seager 1972, 1981). First, as part of the construction of the overall complex, three small rooms were built in the southeastern section. In the second stage, from the second century into the third, the building was extensively re-modelled to create a long basilica-style hall by removing the walls that divided these three smaller rooms. At this point, the building was probably used for some civic functions, such as the meeting of the council or the elders’ organization. In the third main stage the building was obtained by the Jewish community and used as a synagogue beginning in the late-third or early-fourth century. In the fourth and final stage, dated sometime in the mid-fourth century, the hall was substantially renovated (including the creation of the mosaic floors in the main hall and in the forecourt).

The Jewish community made several modifications to the building. Several rows of benches were added at the west end of the hall, perhaps to seat the elders of the community. The columns of the basilica-stage were removed and the wall between the entrance area and the hall was knocked down, thereby creating one large hall. Perhaps most significantly in terms of the building’s relation to the rest of the complex, the only remaining doorway from the synagogue area into the main bath-gymnasium was blocked. This suggests some attempt by those who modified the building to set the hall apart from the remainder of the complex, especially the religious activities associated with the marble court, which was dedicated to the worship of the emperors, or imperial cult.

The remains of the synagogue have been partially restored since 1965 under the direction of Seager based on this final stage of development. There are various features of note in this final stage. A new wall was added at the west end of the hall to create a forecourt with columns surrounding a fountain. Three main doorways were added to this new wall to allow entry from the forecourt into the synagogue hall. Located on this wall on either side of the main entrance were two large shrines, probably used to hold the community’s copy of the Torah or Scriptures, a common feature in other synagogues, like the one at Ostia (near the city of Rome).

Within the synagogue were found several other significant furnishings re-used from other architectural structures. Near the apse (semi-circular space) at the front of the hall was a large marble table which might have been used as a lectern for reading Scripture. The table was decorated with Roman eagles clutching thunderbolts; the eagle was an important Roman symbol and also an astrological symbol within Judaism. Flanking the table at Sardis were two sculpted lions. The lion, it seems, symbolically captures the dual identity of the members of the synagogue, both their Jewish identity (lions are common symbols in Jewish art of the period) and their identity as Sardians (of Lydia). The region of Lydia was well-known for the frequent use of lion symbolism in art and these lions were probably re-used by the Jews from an earlier “pagan” building. The remains of the north and south walls suggest that they consisted of marble decorated with some panels depicting various geometric, floral, and animal designs, which have been reconstructed by archeologists.

Mosaics decorated the floors of the entire synagogue with the exception of the area between the fountain and the columns in the forecourt. These mosaic floors, which date from the fourth century and cover the earlier marble floor, were decorated with intricate geometric designs. Some of the mosaics, such as those in the forecourt (around the fountain), include Greek inscriptions explicitly stating the donors whose financial contributions paid for the cost of the floor. There were over eighty Greek inscriptions and some Hebrew inscriptions found in the building, most dating from this final stage. One inscription also attests to the use of the synagogue for teaching purposes, speaking of the vow of Samoe, “priest and wise-teacher.” Other inscriptions reveal that some donors to the synagogue, both Jews and God-fearers (Gentile adherents of the synagogue), were goldsmiths and others were members of the civic council (Kroll 2001:10, 28, 34-35, nos. 25, 36-37). The Jewish group also had connections with civic or imperial functionaries in the fourth century, including a “count” and a former “procurator”, who each made donations to beautify the synagogue (see Kroll 2001:18-19, 44-45, nos. 5 and 70). Evidently, the Jews' position within the social and cultural life of Sardis was not insignificant.

Compared to our information concerning the synagogue, we know very little about the position of Christian congregations within the city of Sardis. Among his letters to congregations in the seven cities, the author of Revelation warns the Christians at Sardis that “you have a name of being alive, but you are dead... Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me [the one like a Son of Man], dressed in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:1, 4). In the second century, Melito was bishop of the congregation at Sardis. Among his sermons that have partially survived is his one-sided attack on “Israel” in a sermon called “Concerning Passover” (Peri pascha). The rhetorical attack may suggest that a form of Judaism was vital enough in Mileto’s context to warrant his firm condemnation of any association with it. This is at least compatible with the evidence of the synagogue building within the bath-gymnasium, which speaks of a significant Jewish group within Sardis. But it is uncertain whether Melito has real, local Jews in mind (though they would certainly be deeply offended had they heard such rhetoric). The sermon does suggest the possibility that when Christians encountered Jews in a city such as Sardis, there could certainly be occasion for negative sentiment in both directions.


Read more about associations in Sardis and Smyrna in the following article: