A new exhibit at New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World brings to life the ancient city of Dura-Europos, which stands high above the Euphrates River on the eastern border of modern Syria, a monument to vanished eras. The exhibition celebrates both the peoples who lived there—Jews, Christians, and pagans—and, more quietly, the scholars who unearthed the city during the 20th century's golden age of Near East archaeology.
Dura-Europas—originally, Europos—owed its creation to war. It was founded as a militarized trading colony by the Selucid general Nikanor around 300 B.C.E. and was laid out as a Greek city, with temples to Artemis, Apollo, and Zeus. Conquered by Iranian Parthians in 113 B.C.E., it eventually became the city of Dura (in Assyrian, "fortress"). Its gridded plan gave way and even Greek gods assumed more "oriental" characteristics and were joined by local Syrian deities. The Roman conquest in 165 C.E. brought still more peoples and religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Mithraism. Then, just a century later, the city was besieged by the Sasanian emperor Shapur and fell. Its residents were deported, and the site disappeared from view.
Dura-Europos also owed its re-discovery to war. In 1920, Indian troops under British imperial command were digging fortifications in the area when they discovered painted fragments of the city's walls and wooden objects. Excavations began in 1922 and continued through 1937, sponsored by Yale University, whose collection is the chief source of the materials in the NYU exhibit, and the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. They continue today under a joint French-Syrian project.
The exhibit amply illustrates the city's myriad religious rites and identities. We see, for example a wall painting of Jesus healing the paralytic from the earliest-known Christian domus ecclesia, or "house-church," built in 235 C.E., which is decorated with relatively crude scenes from both the Bible and the Gospels. Elsewhere there is a sculpture of the god Arsu from Palmyra, riding a camel, and objects from the Mithraeum, the Iranian warrior god cult brought to Dura-Europos by Roman soldiers. There is a relief of the Greek goddess Tyche—or is it the Syrian goddess Atargatis?
But the largest, most elaborately decorated building in Dura-Europos was its synagogue—which was dismantled and reconstructed in the National Museum in Damascus, where is it displayed today. Built around 165 C.E., it began as a private home and was later enlarged. By the time of its final remodeling, around 240 C.E., the ceiling was 23 feet high and decorated with tiles, including some with the names of synagogue patrons written in Greek. There was a large meeting hall with benches running around the walls; in the west wall, opposite the main entrance, was a niche for the Torah scrolls.
The synagogue's decoration is astonishing. As Clark Hopkins, the synagogue's discoverer, described it, "Aladen's lamp had been rubbed and suddenly from the dry, brown, bare desert had appeared paintings, not just one nor a panel nor a wall but a whole building of scene after scene, all drawn from the Old Testament in ways never dreamed of before." The 28 panels from the frescoed walls show biblical scenes in vivid colors. They depict the Israelites battling the Philistines at Eben-Ezer, the capture of the Ark, its delivery to the Temple of Dagon, the collapse of Philistine idols, and the Ark's return by wagon to the Israelites. Other scenes show Moses recovered from the Nile, standing before the burning bush, and leading the Exodus across the Red Sea. We see Haman leading Mordechai, Solomon's Temple, Ezra, Ezekiel, Elijah, Jacob, Samuel, and others. Above the Torah niche are images of the Temple and the sacrifice of Isaac.
Before the discovery of Dura-Europos, it was never imagined that the Jews of antiquity could have painted in this way; and to see these fragments is to be transported to an age and a Judaism that are at once familiar and deeply alien. The scenes use the conventions of the Roman East. Baby Moses is rescued by Pharaoh's naked daughter; the grown Moses is depicted in severe Roman fashion. Solomon's Temple has Greco-Roman columns. The battle of Eben-Ezer is fought on horseback. At contemporary and later synagogue sites, even in Palestine, figurative art also abounds, including "pagan" imagery. The synagogue Hammath Tiberias—which stood from the fourth through sixth centuries, the heart of the talmudic period—displays a mosaic of the Greek sun god Helios and the zodiac cycle. The stew of languages in Dura-Europos points in the same direction. Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Parthian, Middle Persian, Hebrew, and Safaitic writings are found on countless parchments, papyri, inscriptions, and grafitti. Fragments of Christian Eucharistic prayers are written in Hebrew.
These discoveries point to the inadequacy of our fixed conceptions. They show that there is little empirical evidence to justify denying the diversity of ancient Judaism or viewing it through strict rabbinic lenses. One Dura-Europos scholar, Joseph Gutmann, quotes Gershom Sholom's observation that the "internal censorship of the past, particularly by rabbinical tradition, has tended to play down or to conceal many developments whose fundamentally Jewish character the contemporary historian has no reason to deny."
The diversity raises underlying questions: What was Judaism and who were the Jews in late antiquity? Were Jews—and Christians and pagans—isolated and opposing groups or related points along a spectrum of beliefs? These questions raise other interpretive issues. Do the pagan motifs and styles indicate non-rabbinic, effectively mystical varieties of Judaism? Could biblical characters and stories actually have shared characteristics of pagan deities and beliefs? Were Jews competing with Christian churches in their decorative biblical depictions—and, if so, for what audiences? Or did synagogues and churches simply share the same artisans?
Yet Dura-Europos also reminds us of the repeating patterns of Jewish Diaspora life: the creation of communities that followed trade routes, the rapid building of institutions, the wealthy congregants who stepped forward to bring communal life into being, the influence of contemporary culture on Jewish practice, and the uneasy coexistence with other peoples and beliefs. Even more timeless, Dura-Europos is about the transitory nature of all life, in which thriving cities of one century dry up and blow away in the next or are burned to the ground and forgotten.
Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.
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