Among ancient synagogues, the most sensational find, and the richest in its implications and ramifications, is that of Dura-Europos. Externally the Dura synagogue was modest in the extreme. It was located in a residential area and was originally a private house. In this regard there is no comparison with the architectural impressiveness of the Sardis structure (see pp. 177-183). The uniqueness of Dura, however, lay in its interior. The elaborateness of its wall decorations is otherwise unknown in ancient synagogue art.

Located on the Euphrates River in what is today Syria, Dura-Europos was founded by Seleucus I ca. 300 B.C.E. Built as a typical Greek town in a grid-pattern with walled defenses, a central agora, and temples dedicated to the traditional Greek deities, the city was one of the many foundations established by the Hellenistic monarch throughout his realm. Dura remained a Seleucid outpost until the mid-second century B.C.E., when it was captured by the Parthians; for the next three centuries the city flourished as a center for east-west trade. In the second century C.E., with tensions between Parthia and Rome at a peak, the city was captured by the Romans and remained under their control for almost a century. Dura was destroyed by the Persians in 256 or soon after, and was never resettled.

Nothing is known about the Jewish community of Dura from literary sources. The synagogue remains constitute our single source of information. The fact that the building was so well preserved is indeed fortuitous. It was located in the western extremity of the town on a street running parallel to the city wall. The Persian attack on Dura in 256 C.E. came from the west; from the other three directions the city was impregnable. In anticipation of this assault, the Romans reinforced the wall defenses with a ramp, which at its full extent encompassed a large part of the synagogue building. When the city eventually fell, those parts of the synagogue which had been covered over were relatively unaffected by the ravages of war.

Although it is unknown exactly when the synagogue was founded, it is clear that the building, in its communal phase (in contrast to its earlier usage as a private home), passed through two distinct stages. The later stage, to which practically all the extant remains belong, can be dated with precision. Several inscriptions tell of the dedication of the building in the year 556 of the Seleucid era and the second year of the emperor Philip (244/5 C.E.). The building thus existed for a decade before it was covered over in anticipation of the Persian assault. There are no indications, however, of the date of the earlier, more modest, synagogue building. If, indeed, the Jewish presence in the city was linked to the Roman garrison, with Jews serving as merchants and traders, it would date the community to the late second century C.E. The synagogue, in its first stage, was probably built about this time.

The earlier synagogue consisted of a series of rooms grouped around a central courtyard, 6.55 m. × 6.05 m. Entered from the northwest via a passageway (No. 3), the peristyle court (1) was paved with tiles. The rooms to the east and southeast (Nos. 4-6) apparently played no role in the synagogue ritual and were probably intended as a residence for the synagogue custodian, a hostel for wayfarers, or both. On the other hand, Room 2 to the west clearly served as the sanctuary proper. Although somewhat irregular, it was generally rectangular in shape, ranging in size from 10.65-10.85 m. to 4.60-5.30 m. There were two entrances, one near the center of the eastern wall, a second at the very southern extremity of that same wall.

Benches were located on all four sides of the room, and in a few places there was an additional low pedestal, which might have served as a footrest, thereby compensating for the greater height of the benches in those places. In the middle of the room was a patch of white plaster probably concealing the foundation of some projecting object, subsequently removed. The focal point of the room was an aedicula used as a Torah shrine, located in the western wall opposite the main entrance. Between the courtyard and the side entrance of the sanctuary was Room 7, whose precise function remains elusive. It appears to have served as more than a passageway to the main hall. Benches were built along three of its walls. If, indeed, there existed special quarters for women in ancient synagogues, an assumption which has recently been called into question, then this room would be a logical candidate. However, it may have been used for other purposes, religious, educational, or social.

The later synagogue building was larger and more ornate, indicating the increased prosperity of the Jewish community. In a number of features, this later building followed the pattern of the earlier structure- a “broadhouse” type building with worship oriented towards the long wall to the west, a courtyard adjacent and leading to the main sanctuary on an east- west axis, two entrances to the main hall from the east, an aedicula in the western wall of the sanctuary. At the same time, significant changes were also in evidence. The entrance to the entire complex was now re-located to the east, and the sanctuary proper and adjacent courtyard were expanded to include the entire width of the former building. The assembly room was once again surrounded with benches; this time, however, seating capacity reached about 120 as against 40 of the earlier stage. Next to the aedicula was the elder’s seat, clearly a place of honor and dignity within the room. Room 7 of the earlier phase was absorbed by the enlarged courtyard, and the problem of locating a women’s section in this second stage becomes even greater. No special area seems to have been set aside for this purpose. If such an area existed at this time, it must have been as part of the main hall, which would have been partitioned off.

The major structural change of the synagogue complex involved an expansion to the east and inclusion of House H, 26m. × 18 m., as part of the building. From an alleyway running down the street to the east, one entered a series of rooms which appear to have been divided into two separate suites. The first gave entry to the synagogue forecourt, through Rooms H1, H3 (a courtyard), and H4. H5 was a side room obviously associated with this suite. In addition, there was an inner suite to the south, consisting of five rooms with its own large courtyard, H9. This area, more isolated from the regular flow of traffic to the courtyard and sanctuary, probably served as the residence for a synagogue official as well as a hostel for wayfarers.

The pièce de résistance of the Dura synagogue, however, is not the building itself, but its art. Literary sources as well as inscriptions mention the fact that synagogues were sometimes decorated with paintings; however, archeological excavations had previously uncovered only fragments. Now, suddenly, in this remote provincial town, a synagogue was discovered whose main hall was decorated on its ceiling and over all four of its walls. These walls were divided into five registers. The highest is missing; the lowest consisted of a continuous dado with panels depicting animal and human forms, masks, and imitation of marble incrustations. The three main registers in between contained a rich variety of scenes drawn from the biblical narrative (see below).

The only exception to the narrative character of the paintings was in the area above the Torah shrine, where representations were more symbolic in character. A façade stands in the middle of the face of the shrine’s arch, probably intended to represent the Jerusalem Temple. To its right is a depiction of the sacrifice of Isaac; to the left, a large menorah with a lulab and ethrog. Above this area is a large section which is difficult to identify, simply because it had been so reworked in the short span of Phase II. At first, the decoration appears to have consisted of a large tree (the Tree of Life or a tree symbolic of the Torah), with two strange objects on either side- a table with a cushion (?) on top and a round object beneath, and some sort of stand featuring two lions standing on their hind legs. At a later point this area was divided in half. The lower portion bore a plethora of scenes- Jacob blessing the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Menasseh (lower right), Jacob blessing his twelve sons (lower left), and David depicted as Orpheus playing the harp to a spell-bound audience of animals with a lion in the center. The upper portion featured a seated monarch attended by his court. Various identifications have been suggested- Jacob and his brothers, the blessing of Moses, David, or the Messiah surrounded by the whole House of Israel. This central panel is flanked by four large figures-

Upper right- Moses and the burning bush

Upper left- Moses at Sinai or Joshua meeting an angel near Jericho

Lower right- Moses or Ezra reading from the scroll

Lower left- Joshua at Gibeon or Abraham receiving God’s blessing

These scenes above the ark were clearly pregnant with meaning for the worshippers in the synagogue. The historical and symbolic associations were many. All persons and objects depicted are central to Jewish religious consciousness. The four wing panels serve to heighten the importance of this whole area, as does the fact that the scenes appearing on the various registers seem to lead into this central area.

Regarding these registers themselves, there is a general consensus regarding the identification of most panels. This is so despite the fact that some scenes were totally destroyed when the Roman ramp was made in 256 C.E. (particularly on the east side), while others are problematic owing to their poor state of preservation-

West wall-

Register A—


South—Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Extreme left-hand panel is unidentifiable

Register B—

North—The return of the ark from the land of the Philistines

Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon

South—Dedication of the Tabernacle with Aaron and his sons

Israelite desert camp and the miracle of the well

Register C—

North—Pharoah and the infancy of Moses

Samuel anointing David

South—Mordecai and Esther

Elijah resuscitates the widow’s child

South wall-

Register A—Obliterated

Register B—Consecration of the Tabernacle

Left-hand side obliterated

Register C—The prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel

* Moving from Tight lo left.

Elijah and the widow of Sarepta

Extreme left-hand panel unidentifiable

North wall-

Register A—Right-hand side obliterated

Jacob at Bethel

Register B—Hannah and Samuel at Shiloh (partially destroyed)

The battle at Evenezer

Register C—Death of an important personnage at the altar (identification problematic)

Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones

East wall-

Registers A and B—Obliterated

Register C—

North—David and Saul in wilderness of Zin

South—Belshazzar’s feast (?)

Most of the copious scholarly literature on this synagogue has been devoted to the meaning of these scenes. All agree that they represent, in one form or another, high points in biblical history, when the hand of God was evident in guiding the destiny of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, the question arises as to the basis of the selection of these particular events, and the extent to which there is a central idea pervading all the scenes. Were these scenes selected at random, or is there a fundamental organizing principle underlying the choice?

Scholarly opinion is divided on this question. Rostovtzeff, Sukenik, and Kraeling assume that there was no overriding theme or comprehensive program dictating the selection other than a desire to memorialize important events, a kind of artistic heilsge-schichte paralleled in numerous literary passages, which likewise recounted these and other events. 1 Other scholars have suggested a variety of patterns. Several have seen each register as focusing on a different, though related, theme. Thus, du Mesnil de Buisson considers the subject-matter of one register to be historical, another liturgical, a third moralizing. 2 Sonne interprets the three registers as reflecting the rabbinic dictum regarding the three crowns- Torah, priesthood, and royalty. 3 Others suggest one particular theme which is reflected in all the panels, Wischnitzer—a messianic one, 4 Goodenough—a mystical one. 5

Whatever the outcome of this debate, it is clear that the Dura synagogue has made a greater claim on scholarly attention than any other single Jewish archeological find. And rightly so. The Dura synagogue has opened up whole new vistas in our understanding of Jewish religious thought and artistic taste, and of the synagogue as a central communal institution. Scholars had speculated for decades about the existence of a developed Jewish artistic tradition in antiquity. Dura proved it. Much remains to be done in analyzing this art as regards its iconography, sources, and subsequent influence. Such research will undoubtedly enrich our understanding of this synagogue, Jewish art, and Roman provincial art generally. Finally, as the oldest datable synagogue of the post-70 C.E. period, Dura has provided much evidence regarding early synagogue architecture, and a clear picture of the evolution of an early synagogue building from domestic architecture.

C. Kraeling concluded his masterful and authoritative study of the Dura Synagogue with a summary worth our quoting here-

“The Dura Synagogue is in a very real sense a chance discovery, an incident and an accident that could not be predicted and cannot be expected to occur soon again. But this by no means belittles its importance. The Synagogue brings to vivid expression the vigor and the piety, the high aspiration and the dignity of a relatively small and unimportant Jewish community of the eastern Dispersion in a frontier garrison city. At the same time, through this one structure we can look out into a vast panorama of historical development and relationships, finding new insights suggested everywhere. Here we find new suggestions for an understanding of the growth and development of synagogue architecture. Here the history of Jewish piety and of the development of its interpretative tradition is freshly illumined. Here the ancient Jewish use of art is restored to its rightful place in the total picture of ancient Judaism. Here we see in a new light the common front which Christianity and Judaism held against paganism, and the relationship between Jewish and Christian art. These are the things that give the Dura Synagogue its scientific importance.” 6

1. M. Rostovtzeff, Dura Europos and its Art (Oxford, 1938), pp. 100-134; E. Sukenik, The Synagogue of Dura- Europos & its Frescoes (Jerusalem, 1947), pp. 164-170 (Hebrew); C. Kraeling, The Excavations at Dura Europos, Vol. VIII—The Synagogue (New Haven, 1956), pp. 346 ff.

2 Du Mesnil de Buisson, Lespeintures de la synagogue de Doura-Europas, 245-256 après J.-C. (Paris, 1939), pp. 13-

3. I. Sonne, “The Paintings of the Dura Synagogue,” Hebrew Union College Annual, 20 (1947), 255-362.

4. R. Wischnitzer, The Messianic Theme in the Paintings of the Dura Synagogue (Chicago, 1948).

5. E. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (13 vols; Princeton, 1952-68), Vols. 9-11, and
especially Vol.10, pp. 197-210.

6. Kraeling, above, n. 1, pp. 401-402.