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Notes from Limmud 2009

The Synagogue of Dura-Europos

Albert Ringer

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. This post is formatted for LiveJournal; if you are reading it on Facebook click on "View original post" for optimal layout.]

Dura-Europos is not well-known because it doesn't fit into the stories we like to tell. Our story about the development of Judaism in the third-century is about the Mishna and Tiberias and so forth; Dura-Europos is not mentioned in it. And it's sui generis.


Dura-Europos is located on the Euphrates, on the border between the Roman and (Sassenian) Parthian Empires, and passed back and forth between them. It's a medium-sized border town, and has all the characteristics of a border town. It has all kinds of people with all kinds of religions. It functioned on trade, being located on the trade route.

The town was explored by British and American archaeologists in 1932/3. In the area they found a kind of dam, and traces of walls within it. One of the traces was a fairly large building, so they excavated it, and found a large wall with paintings from top to bottom. After they excavated it the wall started to dry, and though they conserved it, there were details lost which can be found only in the original photos.

The settlement included a synagogue, chapel, military chapel, temple of Zeus and mithraeum.

In 254 the city was Roman. The Sassanids raided other border towns, and the Durans decided to strengthen their walls in case of attack. So they filled in the street between the wall and the outermost buildings, and the buildings themselves. The synagogue, chapel and other buildings were along this street.

Diagram taken from here.

The Sassanids conquered the city, but destroyed it and it was never rebuilt again. The buildings alongside the wall were thus conserved.

The synagogue sanctuary has benches around it, and was reached via a forecourt with columns, and number of anterooms, the purpose of which is not entirely known.

The western wall (facing Jerusalem) is totally decorated; because of the way it was covered and thus preserved, only part of the murals on the north and south walls are preserved. There is a niche in the western wall; but it doesn't seem to be an Ark.


The lowest band is decorative, showing animals and painted to resemble marble. On top of that are three large bands of paintings. The top of the niche is painted with the Binding of Isaac. To the sides are Biblical stories.

A painting of David anointed by Samuel:


David appears with his brothers. They all appear the same, all the same height, and are facing us: a flat kind of depiction; there's very little depth. Some of the brothers have hands raised, in a Roman gesture of prayer. They're all wearing Graeco-Roman clothes; no ציצית are in evidence here or elsewhere. David doesn't have red hair but apart from that it fits the story. From the art history perspective, it's one of the first paintings showing the transition into Byzantine art form.

The "Ark" niche in the western wall:


The Ark niche has a shell at the top. A niche with a shell in Roman art denotes a god revealing itself to the world. But the niche is empty. There's no trace of any statue. Maybe there was a Torah scroll there? Above are depictions of the Temple, Menorah (with straight arms), and a lulav and esrog. Also, the Akeidah (which is at the same place), but with a stone altar. Isaac is also shown in the mountain: the painting seems to support the midrash in which Isaac actually dies and is revived. The hand of G-d is also shown. This is showing a way out of death.

There are four male figures shown; it is debated who they are. One there is no difficulty in identifying: Moses, in front of the burning bush and with his shoes off:


A second figure has a scroll and is next to a bookcase:


A third figure is shown in front of the sun and moon, with a blue box around his head (a halo?).


The speaker thinks all four figures are Moses. In midrash Moses stands on top of the mountain, with his head in heaven.

A painting shows Mordechai being led on a horse by Haman in front of people (but one foot too many [sc. few?]!), with Achashverosh on his throne in the background along with his queen:


The picture shows different parts of the Esther story superimposed. The throne has animals along the sides: a bird, a lion. A midrash says Achashverosh's throne was that of Solomon, which had animals on it which talked to him. Most of the people are in Roman dress, but Mordechai and Achashverosh are in Persian dress.

A painting shows the priests of Ba`al and Elijah on Mt Carmel, complete with the man hidden inside the altar to light the fire, and the snake which, biting him, prevented him doing so, according to the midrash. The priests here are in Roman dress.

Photo taken from here.

A painting of the well in the desert: [I could only find this painting online as a Flash page, so you'll have to follow this link to see it, sorry]: Miriam's well travelled with the people in midrash through the desert. Streams from it went to all the twelve tribes. What it adds is the מִשׁכָּן and menorah. This might symbolise the Israelite camp in toto, but it might also be more.

The symbolism in many of the pictures come from midrash.

Now onto the more problematic depictions. Elijah (or possibly Elisha), shown on the side-wall, reviving a child. We know it has to do with victory over death because it alludes to the symbolism in Roman and Etruscan religious art of a person on a deathbed, having gone over to the other side and living there with their family. The hand of G-d is also shown, intervening, along with a garland, symbolising victory in Roman art.

Photo taken from here.

The finding of Moses shows Moses' basket as a miniature building. The child is handed to Miriam. Pharaoh, surrounded by his court, is shown as a Persian king [off the right hand end of this photo]. This is next to the "Ark" niche, but shows a naked woman in the river:


But it gets worse. There was a local goddess/nymph called Anahita (identified by the Graeco-Romans with Aphrodite), shown as a nude woman shown with fertility symbols. The woman in the Nile is depicted the same way.

Behind the woman in the Nile are three women, which is suggestive of figures elsewhere in Dura-Europos of three water-nymphs, indicating fertility.

The battle at Even ha-Ezer...


...in which the Ark is captured by the Philistines.


The Ark is taken to the Temple of Dagon (next painting), and then overnight the images of the gods of the Philistines are overthrown (shown on the painting). The Philistines in the Bible decide to get rid of the Ark as it's bad luck, and send it out of their city.


But the Ark is not a square box with cherubs on top. It's the same shape with a rounded top as the bookcase in the earlier painting. But it also has doors on the front: It's standing in for the Temple. It's also the same shape as the "Ark" niche.

There are two Temple scenes. One shows Aaron (the only figure in the whole synagogue with a name next to him), in High Priestly dress, next to the Temple. Animals to be sacrificed are shown, and Levites stand around making music.

This photo and the next taken from here.

The other is completely different in atmosphere: It's austere, there are no people, the doors are closed. The speaker's guess is that this shows the Temple in Heaven.


The two images of the Temple stand either side of the four male figures, which are either side of a painting which has been twice repainted in antiquity so we don't know what it means; so the Temple is central.

What does the total ensemble mean? The speaker thinks the main stories are about victory over death: Moses set adrift in the river, the Esther story, the Binding of Isaac.

We know that the Temple is seen as a way of atonement [My notes seem to break off at this point, possibly my battery ran out at this point, and I'll discover the rest on paper at some point. Or perhaps this was it.]

[There are also lots of other paintings not referenced in the talk, e.g. King David (allegedly), the worship of the golden calf, the crossing of the Reed Sea, etc.]

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2010-05-04 11:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
Wow! Where do you have them from? Did you pick it all up from that talk?
Our ancestors with red or blond hair would not make any sense. The Hebrews are not related to Vikings or Celts. They should look more Arabic.

Date: 2010-05-04 11:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Wow! Where do you have them from? Did you pick it all up from that talk?

I took notes from the talk, and then tracked down photos of all the paintings online.

Our ancestors with red or blond hair would not make any sense. The Hebrews are not related to Vikings or Celts. They should look more Arabic.

You'd be surprised. In Poland in the nineteenth century, red hair was viewed as being a sign of being Jewish. And even back in Biblical times, the Bible describes King David as having red hair. Yes, the population as a whole would have looked not dissimilar to Arabs, but there's quite a bit of variation among Arabs. I remember being surprised when I went to a Yemenite synagogue in Jerusalem how much variation there was in skin tone even amongst the people there who would have been born before the immigration to Israel.

But in any case, these paintings would have reflected the appearance of Jews in the second or third century, when they were painted, by which time not all Jewish blood was of Middle-Eastern origin.

Date: 2010-05-04 11:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
Nowadays were wildy mixed and everyone else but to biblical times the Hebrews were really semetic not Vikings and Celts etc.

Date: 2010-05-04 11:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
In Biblical times, yes; not in the third century. This was after, for example, the Hasmoneans had conquered the Idumaeans and forcibly converted them to Judaism, after Hillel had carried out a mass conversion, and after a period in which synagogues had an open-doors policy towards conversion and many Romans were philosemitic.


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