It is no exaggeration to write that the potential destruction of the Dura Europos Synagogue frescoes is on a par with the plight of Bamiyan’s lost Buddhas.
In “The Non-Jewish Jew”, Isaac Deutscher [1907-1967] revisits the Talmudic story of Rabbi Meir, a “pillar of Mosaic orthodoxy” and his much maligned teacher, Elisha ben Abyah or Akher, literally “the stranger”.
Whereas the Talmud focuses on the normative, rabbinic Judaism and its foe, apostasy, Deutscher steers a different path. That “Greek songs did not cease from [Akher’s] mouth” or that “whenever he rose to leave the house of study many heretical books would fall out of his lap” [Talmud Yerushalmi – Hagiga 77b, Talmud Bavli – Hagiga 15 a-b] are of no concern to the post-War writer. Instead, he explores the themes of tolerance, diversity and uniqueness. In his understanding, Akher is the prototype of the non-Jewish Jew on the borderline of civilisation. He transcends Jewry but is nonetheless part of it.
At the time of the codification of the Talmud (the Mishna c200 CE), a synagogue in an unassuming Roman garrison city was nearing the first stage of its completion. In the east of Syria, on the west bank of the Euphrates River, a small house in Dura Europos would be converted into a place of worship. In the course of its brief existence it would be enlarged. It would be embellished with over 60 frescoes in which hundreds of biblical characters would grace its walls; and then, quite deliberately in 256 CE, the synagogue would be buried in the dust.
In my previous article, “In the Ether: Dura Europos and Chemical Warfare,” I discussed the Roman fortifications which preserved the ancient synagogue, the Baptistery (or “House –Church”) and the cultic niche referred to as the Mithraeum: a shrine sacred to the Roman followers of the Iranian god Mithras. Mention of Dura Europos’ artistic heritage was purely in passing.
Yet it was on account of the city’s artistic heritage, in particular its abundant frescoes from the Baptistery, the Mithraeum, the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods as well as the synagogue that brought Dura Europos to the attention of the world. It has held its curiosity for over 70 seventy years.
The site of Dura Europos was discovered by chance during the Arab Revolt of 1920. Less than 2 months after the Hashemite Kingdom of Syria proclaimed itself in defiance of the Anglo-French Sykes Picot Agreement, a startling discovery was made. British-Indian troops, sensitive to the Syrian nationalist rumblings, had pitched camp near the ancient rampart of the ruined city. Under the command of General M .C. Murphy the troops dug trenches as part of a military exercise. Quite unexpectedly several well-preserved wall paintings from the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods were unearthed on the 23 April 1920: the first time in 17 centuries.
News of the frescoes was brought to the attention of James Henry Breasted, archaeologist and founder of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. At the time Breasted was on expedition in Mesopotamia, beyond the Eurphrates. On the 2nd May 1920 Breasted, together with his colleague Daniel Luckenbill, arrived at the Abu Kamal border crossing. Although both men were only able to devote one day to the site, they engaged in brief air reconnaissance of the city and its desert vicinity. Breasted’s notes and Luckenbill’s photographs would later appear in the inaugural publication of the Oriental Institute in 1922. In the space of less than 3 years since its discovery, Dura Europos was well and truly in the international spotlight.
The site was subsequently excavated by Franz Cumont of the French Academy and thereafter by Yale University under Michael Rostovtzeff and Clark Hopkins. During Yale’s tenure the site was identified with Dura by virtue of an inscription to the goddess Tyche (Fortuna) within a wall-painting (above). After a long hiatus excavation was resumed in 1986 and continued for over 25 years under a joint Franco-Syrian team led by Pierre Leriche. The recent British Academy’s Magnetometry Survey of Dura Europos’ military base has also added to the scholarly corpus.
During the 6th Season of excavations in 1932 the synagogue, with its intact 7 metre high walls, rose from the dust. From an inscribed ceiling tile it is known that the synagogue was refurbished and enlarged by the leader of the Jewish community, Samuel, in 244 CE. The frescoes, which once covered all four walls in five horizontal bands, were added in 249/250 CE. Scenes of Saul anointing David, The Book of Esther’s Mordechai riding triumphant, Baby Moses in the basket and Elijah restoring the widow’s son to life are just a few examples of a lost 3rd Century Judaism.
That the Jews of Dura Europos did not follow a literal understanding of the Second Commandment,
“You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness of what is in heaven above or earth below or in the waters under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I the Lord your God and am a jealous God”
has challenged the assumption of a normative, rabbinic (or Talmudic) Judaism in the 3rd Century. For many scholars, Dura Europos’ Jewish community is firmly in Akher’s camp.
Today, the Baptistery and the Mithraeum can be seen at Yale’s University Art Gallery. Several of the 234 painted and incised ceiling tiles are also retained by Yale. Four tiles can be viewed in the new Archaeological Museum of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A scaled reconstruction of the synagogue exists in Tel Aviv’s Beit Hafusot, the Museum of the Diaspora. The actual synagogue frescoes (and the remainder of tiles) hold pride of place in the National Museum of Damascus where the synagogue and its ceiling have been reconstructed in full.
When I last spoke to Professor Abdulkarim of the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) two weeks ago, he indicated that the frescoes were safe and in the museum in Damascus. The frescoes had not been transported to secure storehouses along with other (portable) items. In a city where bombing are gaining in frequency quite what “safe” means is to be determined.
In February of this year the DGAM issued a report, “The Status of Syrian Antiquities since the Beginning of the Crisis until February 1, 2013 and their Protective Measures”. It is a bold and official statement which endorses some of the regime’s rhetoric. My own position is that Professor Abdulkarim and the DGAM are doing a superb job under very difficult circumstances.
To allay my fears I take comfort in the notable examples of where monuments have been preserved in situ. In a distant war, Michelangelo’s statue of “David” in Florence was bricked up within its own tower. Rome’s “Arch of Constantine” was like-wise protected. Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” was protected with a wooden wall reinforced with sandbags. More recently, Beirut’s National Museum, which found itself on the line of demarcation, managed to protect its monumental sculpture with wooden frames and concrete casing. Today it is a jewel of a museum.
That’s all well and good. If the frescoes can survive mortar fire, which must be far more developed than in previous wars, there still remains another risk which lurks around the corner. Should the regime fall, as seems quite probable, the fate of the frescoes might very well lie in the hands of the Salafists.
Salafism follows a strict, literalist interpretation of Islam. Frequently this finds expression in violent jihad against non-Muslims as a manifestation of faith. In the context of cultural heritage, Salafism is no less violent. It is shameless and brutal. It knows no Akher. Graven images, symptomatic of idolatry, do not survive. The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two colossal 6th Century sculptures, is a case in point. So too is a mindset which goes beyond wanton vandalism. The Taliban sought to root out idol-worship and superstition, pure and simple. It fearlessly indicated its desire to rid Afghanistan of its heathen, pre-Islamic past long before it detonated several tonnes of explosive. In 2001, despite an international plea to spare the UNESCO monuments, both the 60 metre Buddha and the smaller 40 metre Buddha came crashing down in an act of pride.
Last year Timbuktu’s “End of the World Gate” was similarly reduced to dust by an appeal to a radical Islam. The monument was not just the victim of cross-fire in a war which has engulfed Mali: the fabled “Gate” was specifically targeted for the falsehood it conveyed.
The Dura Europos frescoes have been called “the most exciting and revolutionary discovery of early Jewish Art”. They derive from one of the oldest synagogues in the world. They are a unique example of a hybrid Graeco-Roman, Semitic and Iranian art. It is no exaggeration to write that the potential destruction of the Dura Europos synagogue frescoes is on a par with plight of Bamiyan’s lost Buddhas. The frescoes have risen once from the dust. How many lives can they have?
The author wishes to thank Susan Matheson, Megan Doyon and Lisa Brody of Yale University and Yale University Art Gallery for their kind support. He is also grateful to Mrs. Emma Cunliffe of Durham University for a copy of the “The Status of Syrian Antiquities since the Beginning of the Crisis until February 1, 2013 and their Protective Measures”.
Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. The views expressed in the article above are those of the author alone. firstname.lastname@example.org @blitz_adam on Twitter