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Courtyard, western porch and prayer hall
The Dura-Europos synagogue (or "Dura Europas", "Dura Europos" etc.) is an ancient synagogue uncovered at Dura-Europos, Syria, in 1932. The last phase of construction was dated by an Aramaic inscription to 244 CE, making it one of the oldest synagogues in the world. It is unique among the many ancient synagogues that have emerged from archaeological digs as the structure was preserved virtually intact, and it had extensive figurative wall-paintings, which came as a considerable surprise to scholars. These paintings are now displayed in the National Museum of Damascus.
Dura-Europos was a small garrison and trading city on the river Euphrates, and usually on the frontier between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Parthian and finally the Sassanid Empires of Persia. It changed hands at various points but was Roman from 165 CE. Before the final Persian destruction of the town in 256-257 CE, parts of the synagogue which abutted the main city wall were apparently requisitioned and filled with sand as a defensive measure. The city was abandoned after its fall and never resettled, and the lower walls of the rooms remained buried and largely intact until excavated. The excavations discovered also very important wall-paintings from places of worship of Christianity, at the Dura-Europos church, and Mithraism, and fragmentary Christian texts in Hebrew.
Because of the paintings adorning the walls, the synagogue was at first mistaken for a Greek temple, though this was quickly corrected by the vice-director of excavations Robert du Mesnil du Buisson in Les peintures de la synagogue de Doura-Europos (Rome, 1939). Mesnil also made detailed comparisons of the friezes from the Dura synagogue with those of the mithraeum, the Christian baptistery, and the temple of the Palmyrene gods.
The synagogue contains a forecourt and house of assembly with painted walls depicting people and animals, and a Torah shrine in the western wall facing Jerusalem. The paintings cover the walls of the main "Assembly Room", using three levels of pictures over a dado frieze of symbols in most places, reaching a height of about 7 metres. The scenes depicted are drawn from the Hebrew Bible and include many narrative scenes, and some single figure "portraits"—58 scenes in total, probably representing about 60% of the original number. They include the Sacrifice of Isaac and other Genesis stories, Moses receiving the Tablets of the Law, Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, the visions of Ezekiel, and many others. The Hand of God motif is used to represent divine intervention or approval in several paintings. Scholars cannot agree on the subjects of some scenes, because of damage, or the lack of comparative examples.
Stylistically they are provincial versions of contemporary Graeco-Roman style and technique; several different artists seem to have worked on them. Technically they are not fresco (paint fused into wet plaster) but tempera over plaster. Earlier parts of the building have decorative painting with no figures. Some of the paintings have figures whose eyes have been scratched out, especially those in Persian costume. (See the figure on the white horse in the picture at right.)
Scholars think the paintings were used as an instructional display to educate and teach the history and laws of the religion. Some think that this synagogue was painted in order to compete with the many other religions practiced in Dura Europos; the new (and considerably smaller) Christian church (Dura-Europos church) appears to have opened shortly before the surviving paintings were begun in the synagogue. The large-scale pictorial art in the synagogue came as a surprise to scholars, although they already suspected that there was a tradition of Jewish narrative religious art at this period, which had all been lost, leaving only traces in later Christian art. The discovery of the synagogue helps to dispel narrow interpretations of Judaism's historical prohibition of visual images.
- Guitty Azarpay Sogdian Painting: The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art 1981 Page 147 "For a comparison of the arrangement of the friezes from the Dura synagogue and those of the mithraeum, the Christian baptistery and the temple of the Palmyrene gods, see Comte R. Du Mesnil du Buisson, Les peintures de la synagogue de ..."
- Hachlili, Rachel. Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in the Diaspora, Part 1, BRILL, 1998, ISBN 90-04-10878-5, ISBN 978-90-04-10878-3, Google books
- Kessler, Edward in Sawyer, John FA. The Blackwell companion to the Bible and culture, Wiley-Blackwell, 2006, ISBN 1-4051-0136-9, ISBN 978-1-4051-0136-3 Google books
- Kraeling, C H, The Synagogue, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956
- Gutmann, Joseph, ed., The Dura Europos Synagogue: A Re-evaluation (1932-1992), Scholars Press, 1992 (with a new introduction);
- Weitzmann, Kurt, ed., Age of spirituality : late antique and early Christian art, third to seventh century, no. 341 & 358, pp. 366–370, 1979, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ISBN 9780870991790; full text available online from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries.
- Young, Penny, 2014 Dura Europos A City for Everyman, Twopenny Press
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- Synagogue frescoes at EIKON Image Database for Biblical Studies, Yale Divinity School.