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DURA-EUROPOS , ancient city on the Euphrates River in Syria. It was long known from the writings of the first-century geographer Isidore of Charax/Bosra, but its exact whereabouts, a site known as el-Ṣalihiye, was discovered only accidentally by a British patrol in the aftermath of World War i while they were digging military installations. A brief excavation was conducted at the site by F. Cumont in 1922–23. A major Franco-American expedition carried out work at the site between the years 1928–37. The city was founded in about 300 b.c.e. by Seleucus i Nicator. It served as a transfer post where goods brought up the river from India were put on camels and carried to Palmyra and the Mediterranean. Dura-Europos was taken by the Parthians in 114 b.c.e. but it retained its autonomy and Greek character. After being held briefly by the Romans at the time of Trajan in 116 c.e., it was restored to the Parthians in 118 c.e., and captured once again by the Romans in Lucius Verus' campaign of 168 c.e. The Romans ruled it until its conquest and destruction by the Sassanids under Shapur i in 256 c.e. Throughout its history the city contained a mixed population and judging from its temples it was largely eastern in orientation, with strong cultural ties with Palmyra. In addition to a synagogue the excavators also found a Mithraeum for the Roman soldiers and a small Christian chapel. The relative sizes of the pagan temples and the synagogue seem to indicate that Dura-Europos' Jewish population was a small minority in the city. Thus although the city was only about 250 miles (400 km.) north of Nehardea, the great center of Babylonian Jewry, the Jews of Dura-Europos must have lived as an isolated group in a pagan center rather than as a fully Jewish community.

The synagogue at Dura-Europos, discovered in 1932, was found in a remarkable state of preservation. It lay just inside the western city wall within an insula of ten houses (block l7) and when the inhabitants, judged expendable by the shrinking Roman Empire, attempted to strengthen the wall against the advancing Sassanid army, they tore off the roofs of the buildings just behind the wall and filled them with sand from the desert. The synagogue was accordingly as securely buried and protected as at Pompeii. The paintings, completed only some five years before the city fell, emerged from the sand nearly as fresh as when painted. The synagogue was built in c. 244–45 c.e. by remodeling a private house and followed the plan of the inner shrines of the pagan temples of the city. Since it contained benches around the room, often found in synagogues elsewhere, it evidently served for group worship. The benches, however, could accommodate only a small part of the congregation and wooden stools were probably used as well. Beneath the synagogue the remains of another smaller and more modest one was found, dating to the last quarter of the second century c.e. The entrance to the earlier synagogue was on the side adjoining the city wall through a narrow corridor which led to a courtyard with porticoes on two sides. The prayer room, 25 × 14 ft. (10.85 × 4.60 m.), contained a niche (the Torah Shrine?) in its west wall, a bench along the walls of the room, and two doorways, one of which may have served as the women's entrance (no sign of a women's gallery was found at Dura-Europos). The walls of the building were painted in geometric designs and fruit and floral motifs. In one corner of the court was a pool; adjoining it was a large room with benches (bet midrash?).

The second (upper) synagogue has an inscription written in Aramaic indicating the date of the completion of its construction in 245 c.e. Its entrance was on the street side far from the wall; the entrance was well hidden and the prayer room itself was accessible only through various passageways. The courtyard of the synagogue was expanded and surrounded by porticoes on three sides and the prayer room was also enlarged (to 45 × 25 ft. (13.65 × 7.68 m.)). Benches were extended along all the walls and a stepped bimah ("platform") built near the niche. A Greek inscription commemorates the building of the synagogue by Samuel b. Idi "elder of the Jews" with the assistance of several members of the congregation. All the walls of the second synagogue were covered with paintings, most of them representing scenes from the Bible, and these must have been executed within only a few years of the renovation. Into these scenes were incorporated pagan figures, forms, and symbols (see *Symbolism, Jewish, in the Greco-Roman Period). The biblical paintings, and others, which only by a flight of the imagination can be associated with any specific biblical incident, were arranged in variously proportioned rectangles separated by borders of running grapevines. Pilasters painted with vines occupy the corners and support the ceiling which seems originally to have been made of square coffers decorated with painted tiles and probably with plaster wreaths at the intersections of the beams. The paintings around the bottom row of the room show masks and harnessed felines holding fragments of their victims. Both the masks and the felines are of the kind generally associated with Dionysus and also with other deities, e.g., the felines with Cybele, the Great Mother of fertility. The many tiles preserved from the ceiling show a large number of fertility symbols: bunches of fruit and grain, and many representations of female heads which Kraeling identified with the "ubiquitous Demeter-Persephone of the eastern Mediterranean," i.e., Cybele. This goddess also appears with the felines and the masks in the dado. Other ceiling tiles show birds, fish, running gazelles, and centaurs holding out a fish. Several tiles bear dated donor's inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic; the congregation was presumably bilingual. Since the ceiling was about 23 ft. (7 m.) high, the inscriptions, written in relatively small letters, could have been read only by the sharpest eyes and thus they were possibly designed to suggest the donors' destiny in the heavenly setting of the ceiling itself, and not as plaques for conspicuous notice.

The room was oriented for worship toward Jerusalem by placing the niche, presumably for the Torah, in the long west wall. On a panel above the niche were painted a menorah, etrog, and lulav, the temple facade, and a crudely drawn scene of the sacrifice of Isaac (the Akedah), which was apparently used to represent a shofar ("ram's horn"). This decoration, and the first stage of the high vine painted above the niche, seem to have been executed even before the other paintings had been planned. The high panel (the reredos) above the niche was repainted several times; this makes it the most important design in the room. After being exposed to light for a few hours, the under paintings came through the upper ones, rendering the whole scene one of utter confusion. The various stages of painting, however, can be fairly well reconstructed, and show that the master directing the decoration planned it during the execution of the paintings and did not merely copy conventional models. First a great tree, rising nearly to the ceiling, was painted with grape leaves and tendrils but without grapes (and thus called a "tree-vine") growing out of a large crater. How many times this design was altered cannot be determined but at a later stage a king in Persian dress seated on a throne and two throne guards were inserted at the top of the tree-vine since leaves show through the white Greek robes of the guards. Several other alterations were also made. The crater at the bottom was painted out and the trunk awkwardly extended downward to leave spaces on either side of the trunk. In the space at the left a table was painted with a bread symbol, and on the right a crater with rampant felines facing each other above it. Halfway up the vine a figure of Orpheus was added playing his lyre to an eagle and a lion, and perhaps other birds and a monkey. This group was not part of the original design since the vine leaves show through the bodies of Orpheus and the lion. These alterations were apparently made to indicate more clearly the meaning of the treevine, namely, through the salvation of music, bread, and wine, the tree led to the great throne above. The design apparently still did not seem specific, or specifically Jewish enough, for the lower table and the crater with felines on either side of the trunk were painted out and replaced by two new scenes. On the left Jacob on his deathbed was represented blessing his twelve sons, while on the right he blesses Ephraim and Manasseh in the presence of Joseph. Representatives of the 13 tribes were also painted standing around the throne above. The alterations in the design were made to show explicitly what seems to have been originally implied by the tree-vine alone, i.e., the salvation of Israel. Orpheus was left in as he was apparently identified with some Jewish figure such as David who saved Israel through his music.

On each side of the reredos two standing figures were painted. The upper two clearly represent Moses at the burning bush and receiving the tablets of the Law on Sinai. Of the lower two figures one depicts a man in a white Greek pallium (as Moses was dressed in the upper two figures) reading a scroll on the model of readers in scenes of mystery religions, and the other an old man in similar garb standing under the arc of heaven with its sun, moon, and stars. The reader seems to be Moses giving the Law to the Israelites after his descent from Sinai, and the old man, the dying Moses, who in Philo's account of his life was taken at his death to join in the song of the heavenly bodies to God. Other identifications, however, have been suggested for the latter two figures and no positive judgment can be made. The painters now continued to cover the walls with scenes based mainly on biblical incidents, all of which are stylized and given midrashic or allegorical interpretation. On the bottom left side of the west wall Elijah is represented reviving the widow's son, an infant dead and without features who is held out to the prophet by his mother; next the prophet holds up the baby alive but still with no features, and lastly he is again in his mother's arms, glorified, and finally with features. Beside this scene a longer painting shows three groups of people. On the right Ahasuerus, enthroned with Esther, is humiliated as a messenger brings him news of the massacre of his subjects. At the left Mordecai in full regal splendor rides on a horse led by Haman in slave's dress. Between these two scenes, in the dramatic center of the painting, stand four large figures dressed in pallia with three of their hands raised in blessing. These are apparently angelic figures representing God's intervention in the Persian crisis. On the same row to the right of the niche Samuel anoints David, who stands with his hands folded under a dark pallium, while a large Samuel in a white pallium pours oil from a horn onto David's head. Jesse and five brothers stand behind in a hieratic row wearing white or light-colored pallia. To the right of this scene is the last painting on the bottom row of the west wall, a large work based on the infancy of Moses. At the right Pharaoh enthroned and in Persian dress orders the midwives (the mother and the sister of Moses) to kill all male Jewish babies and a woman stoops apparently to put Moses into the ark. In the center of a group at the left Moses is taken out of the ark by a naked woman who stands knee-deep in the river. She is identified as Aphrodite-Anahita by her peculiar necklace. She holds the baby up to three women standing on the bank; these are identified by the emblems they carry as the three nymphs who were the nurses of all divine babies, actual gods, and divine kings. As Aphrodite-Anahita holds the baby up to the nymphs it has no features, but in the last scene the baby is in the hands of the mother and sister and at last fully formed with features. At the far left of the row above, Moses again stands in the pallium, parts of which have a peculiar checked design. He touches a well with his rod and from it 12 streams flow out toward 12 tents surrounding the well. In each tent stands a short figure in Persian dress. A gabled doorway with only darkness behind it occupies the back center of the painting; a menorah and incense burners stand before it. It is generally agreed that the scene is based on Moses' bringing water from the rock in the desert, and that the 12 tribes here, as often in Jewish tradition, are equated with the Zodiac.

Adjoining this scene on the right, the artist depicted a temple with Aaron in priestly dress dominating the scene. Aaron is identified by his name written in Greek beside him. Five much smaller men in Persian dress attend him, one holding an ax as if to strike a reddish bovine before him, and the others carry horns (not like shofars). Another bovine, probably a bull, stands with a ram on the right. The main interest is the temple itself, which instead of the curtained tabernacle of Aaron's priesthood, is a temple of stone, an outer wall forming a court around an inner porticoed sanctuary. In the outer wall are three closed doorways; a pink-lined curtain blows back from the central one. Aaron stands in the court along with a large menorah, two small incense burners, and an altar with an indistinguishable animal on it for sacrifice. The menorah is the central object, but behind it, through the open door of the inner shrine, can be seen the veiled Ark of the Covenant. The Ark stands in front of the veil after the ancient custom for revealing veiled objects. The form of the temple was taken from a common design which the Dura painter spaced out so as to indicate the inner court with its objects. Even the winged Victories bearing wreaths as acroteria for the inner shrine were retained. This painting seems to represent the values of the Aaronic priesthood in general. Balancing this on the other side of the reredos is a basically similar temple, but with the design altered to express a more abstract idea. Again three closed doors pierce what was meant as the outer wall and above it is the inner shrine still with its winged Victories. The outer wall, however, has become a series of seven stone walls, each a different color, which rise from the bottom to the top and from side to side of the painting. Thus the three doors and the inner shrine seem to be artificially superimposed upon the walls. The inner shrine has ten columns instead of the five in the Aaron scene, and like the three doors, it is closed. The temple does not stand on the ground and no ritual is indicated (and so it is called the "Closed Temple"). On each of the two doors in the lower central doorway are three panels. These depict, from top to bottom, a bull lying in the position of sacrifice; a herculean figure standing naked and flanked by a small naked figure; and the figure of Tyche.

To the right of the "Closed Temple" is the last painting on this register of the west wall which depicts a third temple, open and empty, with cult objects and the fragments of two Persian deities strewn on the ground before it. Beside it is the Ark on a cart pulled by two bovines that are being whipped and led by two men in Persian costume. Three dignified men in light-colored pallia walk abreast behind the Ark. The painting was without doubt suggested by the biblical incident in which the idol of Dagon collapsed before the Ark and the Ark itself was returned to the Israelites on a cart. The left side of the top register of the west wall is almost totally destroyed although the base of a throne with "Solomon" written on it in Greek and the bottom of various figures can be seen. Nothing, however, can be identified. Opposite this, a long painting presents the drama of the Exodus from Egypt. Egypt is depicted as a walled town at the far right with figures of Ares and two Victories above the open gate through which the Israelites march out. They advance in four columns. In the upper three columns two bands of armed troops guard both sides of a row of 12 men in white pallia, presumably the 12 heads of tribes. The bottom row is made up of ordinary people wearing only the belted chiton. Leading them is Moses as a great heroic figure. In a white dotted pallium Moses strides vigorously toward the Red Sea, which he is about to strike, not with the rod expected from the biblical narrative, but with the knobby mace of Heracles. The sea before him is already closed in the economy of narrative art and Moses is again depicted closing it on its other side; the sea is filled with drowning people. Beyond this Moses again touches water with his rod; this time the water is a pool filled with numerous leaping fish to indicate its vitality. The armed guards of the first scene stand behind the pool with the 12 heads of the tribes; they hold banners like those carried in mystic processions. When the sea was divided, according to Jewish legend, 12 paths were made, one for each tribe, and these are apparently indicated by a tier of horizontal lines behind the third Moses. The other walls of the room present biblical scenes in a similar vein but, since they are only partially preserved, their overall plan, if any existed, cannot be reconstructed. Of the east wall only the lowest register and dado remain; one scene shows a few birds and part of a table. Another apparently shows David and Abishai approaching the sleeping Saul and Abner in the wilderness; half the painting is occupied by an army on white horses led by a captain. In the Esther scene the artist seems to have represented divine intervention and this apparently also appears in two scenes on the south wall. There, below a badly preserved procession of the Ark of the Covenant are three scenes from an Elijah cycle which first depicts Elijah coming to the widow, and then the sacrifice of the prophets of Baal. The sacrifice is being vitiated by a great serpent that attacks the small figure of Hiel according to the legend in which Hiel was hidden behind the altar to set fire to the sacrifice but was killed by a snake. Beside this, in the corner adjoining the west wall, Elijah offers his sacrifice while servants pour on water and three great figures dressed in pallia bring down heavenly fire. Although Elijah reviving the widow's son should have preceded the two scenes of sacrifice, it instead adjoins them on the wall where it was apparently part of the original plan and the cycle on the south wall, an afterthought probably intended to show the lesser triumphs of the prophet as preparation for his final power to raise the dead.

The north wall is better preserved but still only part remains. In the single scene left at the top Jacob dreams of the ladder. The design is identical with that in the catacomb of Via Latina in Rome except that in the catacomb the angels wear white pallia and at Dura-Europos, Persian dress. As the pallium is the original form, the change to Persian dress in the East must be of significance, but nothing suggests what prompted it. The register beneath this contains only unidentifiable fragments on the right; beside it is a fine representation of a great battle centering on two champions attacking each other with lances as in other scenes of Eastern art while warriors in identical armor fight above and below them. One champion rides on a black horse and the other on a white. In the same painting a group of six warriors guard the Ark of the Covenant while four men in Greek chitons carry it away from the battle. The scene must be based on the battle of Ebenezer where the Ark was captured but it also shows the turmoil of the conflict between light and darkness (the two horsemen) as against the triumphant reality embodied in the Ark. As in the Elijah cycle the scene seems to be related to the one adjoining it on the west wall where the heathen idols crash before the Ark after the same battle. The scene on the side wall again seems to amplify the one on the west wall but the artist's exact intention cannot be determined. Below this in the longest painting in the room is a great pageant of Ezekiel. He is first depicted being brought into the valley, then preaching to the bones, and supervising their restoration to life. The continuation depicts either the legendary beheading of Ezekiel or Mattathias the Hasmonean slaying the faithless Jew.

The paintings at Dura-Europos were executed by at least two artists. One, influenced by Hellenistic art, portrayed the major biblical personages (Moses, Jacob, Joseph, etc.) as Roman citizens dressed in the tunic and pallium, and the Israelite host as Roman soldiers. The other drew his inspiration from Persian art and portrayed his figures as horsemen in Parthian dress (Mordecai, Ezekiel, the sons of Aaron, the Israelites fighting the Philistines, etc.). The women (such as Queen Esther, Pharaoh's daughter, etc.) are dressed like the Hellenistic city-goddesses (Tyche). Particularly forceful and vivid in artistic execution are the imaginative paintings, such as the vision of dry bones which contains three episodes of the story of Ezekiel in one painting, and the souls of the dead are portrayed as Greek Psyches with wings of butterflies. The Dura-Europos paintings contain a wealth of material from the aggadah, which was also apparently derived in part from the early Targum, such as the descriptions of the miracle of the battle of Meribah where water was sent through channels to each of 12 tents which symbolize the camps of the tribes. Solomon's throne and the sacrifice of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel are depicted according to the legends of the Midrash and thus they contain details not present in the biblical narratives, as for example, Hiel bitten by a snake on the altar of the prophets of Baal (cf. Yal., i Kings 18:25 [214]). The architecture in the paintings generally follows Hellenistic style but Jewish tradition can be recognized in several details, such as the Ark of the Covenant in the desert as a wheeled chariot (similar to a relief from Kefar Naḥum). This tradition is also evident in the dress of the high priest Aaron and other details.

From the social and religious historical standpoint it is significant that in the third century a Jewish community in the Diaspora did not hesitate to decorate the walls of a synagogue with the human form, with the major figures of the Bible (although this was later on also done in synagogues in the Galilee). The discovery of Dura-Europos is of primary importance for the history of art: until then this Jewish-Hellenistic art style was known only from the paintings of early Christians in the catacombs of Rome. Dura-Europos provided a Jewish source of this art. Its paintings present a blending of Eastern and Western – Persian and Hellenistic – elements (notably in the frontal pose of the figures and the Hellenistic style dress) which predates by centuries the same fusion which is the basis of Byzantine art. The paintings provide a focal point in ancient art in which influences of the past converge with developments of the future. The Dura-Europos paintings were later transferred to the Damascus Museum. A complete copy was reconstructed at Yale.

[Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough /

Michael Avi-Yonah]

Later Scholarship

The synagogue paintings (approximately 29 panels are preserved) are thought to have been the work of Jewish artists, perhaps hailing from Palmyra (Kraeling), utilizing pattern books of artistic renderings of biblical stories available to them, as well as inspired by Jewish liturgy, customs, and legends prevalent in Palestine at that time. Wright wrote in 1980 that the paintings "are too clumsy and provincial in execution to have been invented independently, without an iconographic model, in that desert outpost" (quoted in Gutmann 1987). Among the questions that scholars have been dealing with in regard to the paintings are the following: What are their stylistic and iconographic sources? Why was the Second Commandment (Ex. 31:45–: "You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness") ignored? Does the cycle of murals have an overall purpose and meaning? Do they reflect a set form of theological Judaism of that time? Did they exert any influence on subsequent Jewish and Christian art? Goodenough dedicated three volumes of his Jewish Symbols of the Graeco-Roman World to a detailed analysis of the Dura-Europas synagogue paintings. Goodenough's attempts to read Jewish mysticism into many of the details of the paintings, especially in regard to the type of garments worn by the various figures, and the absence of certain symbols next to the representation of the menorah, and so forth, have met with much criticism by scholars, notably by Avi-Yonah (1973) and Smith (1975). Although Jewish religious symbolism and imagery undoubtedly existed in antiquity, and much of it was clearly influenced by Graeco-Roman artistry, what remains unclear is the extent of the values that Jews attached to these symbols and images as they appeared in the Dura-Europas paintings. Most scholars are in agreement regarding many of the painted scenes, but a lack of agreement still prevails as to whether these scenes were connected to a central organizing theme or whether they were made at random to enshrine various events in the destiny of the Jewish people. Grabar was of the opinion that the paintings in the synagogue had explicit messianic associations; Flesher has recently shown this to be misguided. Gutman commented in 1987 that "the Dura Europas synagogue paintings have opened up hitherto unforeseen horizons in ancient religious art and history."

[Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]


Mayer, Art, index; F. Cumont, Les Fouilles de Doura-Europos, 19221923 (1926); The Excavations at Dura-Europos… Preliminary Report of Sixth Season of Work, October 1932March 1933 (1936), 309–96; T. Ehrenstein, Ueber die Fresken der Synagogue von Dura Europos (1937); M.I. Rostovtzeff, Dura-Europos and its Art (1938); R. Du Mesnil du Buisson, Les peintures de la synagogue de Doura Europos (1939); H.F. Pearson, A Guide to the Synagogue of Doura Europos (1939); Grabar, in: rhr, 123 (1941), 143–92, 124 (1941), 5–35; N. Schneid, Ẓiyyurei Beit ha-Keneset be-Dura Europos (1946); Sonne, in: huca, 20 (1947), 255–362; E.L. Sukenik, Beit ha-Keneset shel Dura Europos ve-Ẓiyyurav (1947); R. Wischnitzer, The Messianic Theme in the Paintings of the Dura Synagogue (1948); R. Meyer, in: Judaica, 5 (1949), 1–40; ch Kraeling, The Synagogue (The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report, 8 pt. 1, 1956; 8, pt. 2, 1967); Eissfeldt, in: Reallexikon fuer Antike und Christentum, 4 (1959), 358–70; E.R. Goodenough, in: iej, 8 (1958), 69–79; idem, in: jbl, 81 (1962), 113–41; Goodenough, Symbols, vols. 9–11 (1964). add. bibliography: M. Avi-Yonah, "Goodenough's Evaluation of Dura: A Critique," in: J. Gutmann (ed.), The Dura-Europas Synagogue: A Re-evaluation (19321972) (1973), 117–35; M. Smith, "Goodenough's Jewish Symbols in Retrospect," in: J. Guttman (ed.), The Synagogue: Studies in Origins, Archaeology and Architecture (1975), 194–209; C. Hopkins, The Discovery of Dura-Europas (1979); L.I. Levine, "The Synagogue of Dura-Europas," in: L.I. Levine (ed.), Ancient Synagogues Revealed (1981), 172–77; J. Guttman, "The Dura Europas Synagogue Paintings: The State of Research," in: L.I. Levine (ed.), The Synagogue in Late Antiquity (1987), 61–72; L.M. White, Building God's House in theRoman World (1990); P.V.M. Flesher, "Rereading the Reredos: David, Orpheus, and Messianism in the Dura Europas Synagogue," in: D. Urman and P.V.M. Flesher (eds.), Ancient Synagogues: Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery. vol. 2 (1995): 346–66.

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