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Return to Dura Europos

Apr-17-2001 at 01:48 PM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

LAST EDITED ON Apr-17-2001 AT 02:54 PM (CT)

Shlama Akhay,

An interesting article about the archaeological treasures found in Dura-Europos, in modern-day Syria:

The remains of the Synagogue of Dura-Europos

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It was like a page from the Arabian Nights. Aladdins 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 a way never dreamed of before.


Map of Syria showing location of Dura-Europos

This is how the American archaeologist, Clark Hopkins, described the sensational discovery sixty-five years ago this month of the synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria. By then the Franco-American team had been digging for six seasons at the site, which had already earned the sobriquet Pompeii of the East because of its marvellous finds.


Mural of the Torah Shrine in the Synagogue

Dura Europos had been known about for a long time from literary sources. The Assyrians had first made use of the prominent escarpment jutting out over the west bank of the River Euphrates, around 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. The city had been re-established in the third century BC by Nicanor, a general of Seleucus I.


The Church at Dura-Europos

Precious stones: the remains of the synagogue at Dura Europos.

Dura means fortress and it was indeed a fortified city, bounded on two sides by deep ravines, on a third by the Euphrates and on the fourth side, which faced west into the desert, by huge walls and towers of mud and stone.

The Macedonians built Dura as a frontier town to control the river trade. Goods including silks, jade, spices, ebony, ivory and precious stones, were brought from the east and transferred onto camels for the desert leg of the journey, via Palmyra, to the Mediterranean.

Dura was an outpost bordering a clutch of kingdoms in unsettled times. It became an ethnic melting pot. Greeks, Byzantines, Persians, Christians and diaspora Jews lived and worked side by side. In 140 BC the nomads of Parthia in the east captured the city, which was then passed backwards and forwards between the Romans and the Sassanians, another Persian people. It was the Sassanians who finally destroyed Dura Europos in AD 256, possibly because of a revolt by the inhabitants.


Samuel annoints David, Synagogue mural

The desert and mud closed over the city and it literally disappeared for more than 1,600 years. It was discovered by a British soldier digging trenches during the First World War who uncovered the corner of a temple in the north-west corner. Excavations began in 1928 and a city of many peoples and religions began to emerge.


Over the Baptistry was a figure of the Good Shepherd, Church Mural

The finds were indeed extraordinary. Apart from the stunning panorama of the battlements and walls forming the western edge of the city, the archaeologists found temples to Greek, Roman and Palmyrene gods, as well as the earliest dated Christian church. The murals in the chapel had been painted between AD 232 and 256, three quarters of a century before Constantine recognised Christianity.


A visual of what the Church looked like, with the Baptismal in the center.

It was in the Tower of the Archers overlooking a ravine that parchments were found confirming that Greek and Macedonian settlers had laid out the city. A Roman wooden shield decorated with a picture of a ship was also found. A list of stations from the Black Sea to Syria had been written beside it the first travel diary by a legionary soldier.

The skeletons of a small party of men were found in the city walls. They had been suffocated when the tunnel collapsed during the final siege of the city. It was impossible to tell whether they were city inhabitants or the attacking Persians. But it was the discovery of the synagogue, tucked away in a private house against the west wall close to the church, which made archaeologists and art historians sit up. Clark Hopkins described the find:


Moses and the burning bush, Synagogue mural

I clearly remember when the foot of fill dirt still covering the back wall was undercut and fell away, exposing the most amazing succession of paintings. Whole scenes, figures and objects burst into view, brilliant in colour, magnificent in the sunshine. Though dwarfed against the vast backdrop of the sky and the tremendous mass of the embankment, they seemed more splendid than all else put together.

The walls of the synagogue were painted with all the famous scenes in the Old Testament even though Jewish law forbids the representation of living creatures. It was a unique find. Images of animals and people had been found on Jewish remains before, but could not be compared with the scale of the paintings in the Dura Europos synagogue.


Abraham recieves the promise, Synagogue mural

An Aramaic inscription helped date the synagogue to around AD 244 which may go some way towards explaining the paintings. The use of imagery in Jewish art appeared around the second and third centuries. It was during this period that the Christians, many of them breakaway Jews, were building their own highly- decorated churches. The church and the synagogue in Dura Europos were built at the same time, virtually side by side.


Maran Eshoa healing the Paralytic

The church at Dura Europos was dismantled and re-constructed in Yale in the early 1930s. But the Syrians refused an export licence for the synagogue. Its panels and gorgeous roof of baked-brick tiles were transported across the desert 300 miles away to Damascus, where it became the centrepiece of the countrys national museum built in 1934. Yale had to settle for a copy.


The Yale University reconstruction of the Church Baptismal


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Assyria \ã-'sir-é-ä\ n (1998)   1:  an ancient empire of Ashur   2:  a democratic state in Bet-Nahren, Assyria (northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria.)   3:  a democratic state that fosters the social and political rights to all of its inhabitants irrespective of their religion, race, or gender   4:  a democratic state that believes in the freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture in faithfulness to the principles of the United Nations Charter — Atour synonym

Ethnicity, Religion, Language
» Israeli, Jewish, Hebrew
» Assyrian, Christian, Aramaic
» Saudi Arabian, Muslim, Arabic
Assyrian \ã-'sir-é-an\ adj or n (1998)   1:  descendants of the ancient empire of Ashur   2:  the Assyrians, although representing but one single nation as the direct heirs of the ancient Assyrian Empire, are now doctrinally divided, inter sese, into five principle ecclesiastically designated religious sects with their corresponding hierarchies and distinct church governments, namely, Church of the East, Chaldean, Maronite, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic.  These formal divisions had their origin in the 5th century of the Christian Era.  No one can coherently understand the Assyrians as a whole until he can distinguish that which is religion or church from that which is nation -- a matter which is particularly difficult for the people from the western world to understand; for in the East, by force of circumstances beyond their control, religion has been made, from time immemorial, virtually into a criterion of nationality.   3:  the Assyrians have been referred to as Aramaean, Aramaye, Ashuraya, Ashureen, Ashuri, Ashuroyo, Assyrio-Chaldean, Aturaya, Chaldean, Chaldo, ChaldoAssyrian, ChaldoAssyrio, Jacobite, Kaldany, Kaldu, Kasdu, Malabar, Maronite, Maronaya, Nestorian, Nestornaye, Oromoye, Suraya, Syriac, Syrian, Syriani, Suryoye, Suryoyo and Telkeffee. — Assyrianism verb

Aramaic \ar-é-'máik\ n (1998)   1:  a Semitic language which became the lingua franca of the Middle East during the ancient Assyrian empire.   2:  has been referred to as Neo-Aramaic, Neo-Syriac, Classical Syriac, Syriac, Suryoyo, Swadaya and Turoyo.

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