In 1932–33, the sixth season of Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters’ excavation project at Dura-Europos, the team made an extraordinary discovery within the earth of the embankment along the city’s western fortification wall: a synagogue with elaborately painted wall and ceiling decoration.
The building covered an entire city block, just north of the western wall’s main gate (the Palmyrene Gate). Much of the excavation of this structure was overseen by Count Robert du Mesnil du Buisson, who had been appointed by the French Academy as associate director of the excavation.
In the following year, Yale University sent Herbert Gute, a recent graduate from the Yale School of Fine Arts, to Dura-Europos to copy the synagogue’s wall paintings before Henry Pearson, another member of the Yale team, removed them from the walls. The original paintings from the synagogue eventually went to the National Museum in Damascus, but the entire set of Gute’s copies went to Yale.
The synagogue began as a private house that was converted into a meeting place for the Jewish community during the Romans’ occupation of Dura-Europos, sometime between A.D. 165 and 200. It was renovated, enlarged, and elaborately decorated in a later phase of construction, dated by an Aramaic inscription to A.D. 244/45.
One of the oldest known synagogues, the structure is unique because of its remarkable preservation and the cycle of figural images painted on its walls. The building features a large private residence, which provided access to a forecourt. At least part of the house probably served as guest quarters for travelers visiting the synagogue.
From the forecourt, worshippers were able to enter the assembly room, which featured a Torah shrine in the middle of the western wall (according to Judaic tradition, the most important wall, as it faces Jerusalem). The shrine was painted with faux-marble decoration, geometric patterns, and clusters of pomegranates, grapes, oranges, and cedar cones.
The walls of the assembly room were covered with painted scenes, arranged in three levels, including narrative images as well as single figures from the Old Testament. There are fifty-eight images preserved in all, probably representing about 60 percent of the original number.
The pictorial sequence in the Dura-Europos synagogue is surprising to many scholars, given the prohibition against figural imagery in the Jewish tradition. Study of this building and its decoration has fundamentally altered our understanding of religious iconography and the development of Judaism in antiquity.
The ceiling of the synagogue’s assembly room was also elaborately decorated. Wooden beams supported the flat roof and held rows of baked clay tiles. Each tile was about 16 inches square and 2 inches thick. A total of 234 complete or fragmentary tiles were discovered in the excavation of the synagogue, just over half of the estimated 450 tiles that would have originally formed the ceiling of the space.
The tiles were painted with a wide variety of decorative motifs, including personifications, astrological symbols, animals, flowers, fruit, grain, apotropaic designs to ward off evil, and inscriptions (in both Aramaic and Greek).
The construction and decoration of the synagogue’s ceiling is not unique; similar ceiling tiles were found in several other buildings at Dura-Europos, including the nearby and virtually contemporary House of the Scribes. This use of comparable materials indicates that, rather than being set apart, the synagogue fit into the overall architectural fabric of the city.
The presence of a prominent synagogue in close proximity to other religious buildings supports the theory that there was a mutual respect among many of the different religious groups in the city. The scenario at Dura-Europos is paralleled in other cities throughout the Roman Empire where Jewish communities have been identified.
When the Dura-Europos synagogue paintings were executed in the mid-third century A.D., Jews were not persecuted in the Roman Empire, nor were they isolated. They constructed major synagogues in several of the big cities of the realm, and some of those synagogues were near churches or pagan sanctuaries. At Dura-Europos, the large and elaborately decorated synagogue suggests that members of the Jewish community made no effort to keep a low profile but instead interacted with many of the other religious and cultural groups in the city.