The Egyptian Antiquities Authority discovered this mosaic depicting King David as Orpheus in 1965 in Gaza. Originally interpreted as an image of a female saint, the mosaic first became known to scholars in 1966, when the Italian journal Orientalia reported its discovery. From the photos published in the article, Hebrew University professor Michael Avi-Yonah knew immediately that the mosaic image was not that of a female saint and that the building in which it was discovered was not an ancient church, as stated in the report.a A Hebrew inscription that clearly read “David” was located immediately to the right of the figure’s head. At a glance Avi-Yonah was able to correctly identify the figure as King David playing the harp, and the building in which it was discovered as an ancient synagogue.

It wasn’t until Israel took control of Gaza in 1967, however, that Israeli archaeologists were able to investigate the synagogue and mosaic that they had previously seen only in photographs. They arrived at the site to find that a portion of the mosaic had been destroyed, including David’s head (see photo).

The Israel Antiquities Authority sent an archaeological team directed by Asher Ovadiah to excavate the site, which revealed the remains of the largest ancient synagogue ever discovered in the Holy Land. Its roughly square plan measured 85 by 100 feet, and a Greek inscription located at the foot of the mosaic dates both the mosaic and the building to 509 C.E. This is consistent with other known mosaics in the region from the same time; both a nearby church at Shellal and a synagogue at Nirim from later in the sixth century contained mosaics that are very similar in style to the Gaza mosaic.

The portrayal of David dressed as a Byzantine emperor is designed to confer royal designation on him. Indeed, in the Byzantine period, royalty is often portrayed with a halo, as this David was before the destruction of the upper portion of the panel.

The original photos taken at the site before the mosaic was damaged would prove crucial to the conservators’ work that began in 1992. The damaged mosaic was brought to Jerusalem and placed in storage in the Rockefeller Museum. Israel Museum curators Yael Israeli and David Mevorakh wanted to restore and display it.

The complicated technical work of the mosaic’s restoration reached the peak of difficulty when it came to the reconstruction of David’s face. Unfortunately for the restorers, the only photos of the mosaic before it was damaged were black and white—and shot at an angle. Using a new computerized technique and the original black and white photos, the conservators and the Computer Vision Laboratory at the Hebrew University were able to reconstruct the correct outline of David’s head and halo, but they had no sense of the true colors of the original tiles. Using the information they had, the restorers chose to use only tiles in various shades of gray and brown.

The end result was criticized by The Jerusalem Post as being unrealistic and “cartoon-like.” However, no restoration can truly equal the original, and the professional code of a restorer is to reconstruct a piece to the extent that it can be known.—S.K.Y.