Robert S. MacLennan/Black Sea Project

Chersonesus’s Byzantine basilica (upper middle of the photo), dating to the fifth or sixth century C.E., was built over an earlier structure that the excavators believe was the town’s Jewish public building, or synagogue.

What led the excavators to this basilica? In museums in Kerch and Chersonesus, they found numerous references to well-established, ancient Jewish communities in the Crimea. Several manumission documents from the first century C.E., for example, state that the freedom of a newly released slave will be guaranteed by tes sunagoges ton Ioudaion—the synagogue, or community, of the Jews.

A Jewish building—what we mean today by the word “synagogue”—may once have occupied the site on which the basilica was later built. The evidence for this ancient synagogue includes a menorah depiction, found in secondary use in the basilica, and a plaster fragment containing the word “Jerusalem.” Both the menorah and the inscription date to between the second and fourth century C.E., centuries before the Byzantine basilica was built.