Adam Blitz

Lara’s Tongue: on Dura-Europos and the Digital Essay

Footprint of the synagogue at the site of Dura-Europos
Footprint of the synagogue at the site of Dura-Europos

Loquacious Lara, the water nymph, could not control her tongue. Unable to keep secrets she incurred the wrath of Jupiter who severed it and dispatched her to the Underworld. There she bore twins, the Lares or Watchmen. Tradition ascribes to her a similar role as silent guardian of the dead. She is symbolized with clay, soil and violets, the ritual flowers sprinkled on the cross-roads where the temporal and the spirit world meet.

Lara is not alone. For archaeology, the study of humankind’s past, the stones of antiquity are likewise mute.

Fieldwork, the capturing of data in situ, is only one aspect of archaeology. Scripting that context, and putting flesh, on the bone is another. The pen, no less than the trowel, is integral to the production of archaeological knowledge, though it is not without obstacle as social theorists readily make us aware.

Archaeologists, we are told, create and re-create interpretations of the distant past. Put simply, the reconstructions (or omissions thereof) are as much indebted to the writer’s cultural milieu as they are to independent and objective research. T. S Elliot said it better, “the past should be altered by the present as the present is directed by the past.”

This creative process is examined by Rosemary Joyce, Professor of Archaeology at The University of California at Berkeley in, The Languages of Archaeology, Dialogue, Narrative and Writing (2002). She delves into the question as to how the act of authoring, which is invariably bound to authority and authorising, favours one voice over the other.

Through the lens of the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin [1895-1975], and in particular his concepts of polyphony, heteroglossia and dialogic or the perpetuity of dialogue, Joyce finds that archaeological enquiry is inherently multi-vocal. It too is dialogic (not dialectic). Via a complex web of communication in which speakers and listeners, readers and critics, evaluate, accept, reject, judge and reflect upon dialogues, a singular form of knowledge is derived. In other words archaeology is a dynamic exercise in which a multiplicity of voices, indigenous and foreign, co-exist and strive to negotiate a unified meaning.

Unfortunately, as the history of archaeological scholarship has shown, this seldom happens in practice. When these encounters have been transcribed, one authoritative voice typically prevailed only to silence the others. Dura-Europos, and its scholarship, is a case in point.

The ruined city is located in the very east of Syria on the west bank of the Euphrates River. It is close to the town Salihye 60 kilometres south of Deir Ez-Zor and 40 kilometres north of the Abu Kamal border-crossing with Iraq. Two hundred and thirty  kilometres eastwards is the oasis city of Palmyra with which it once had strong ties.

Tetrapylon (civic hub - "roundabout") Palmyra
Tetrapylon (civic hub – “roundabout”) Palmyra


The site was founded circa 330 BCE by Nikanor, a general to Seleucus 1st. Initially a sparsely populated military colony it lay midway on the trade route between the Seleucid Mediterranean capital Antioch on the Orontes and the Mesopotamian headquarters Seleucia on the Tigris. In 113 BCE the city yielded to the (Iranian) Parthians of the steppe. Although outwardly Greek, it was under 300 years of Parthian rule that the city acquired its hybrid and multi-ethnic character. With a fusion of Greek and Semitic gods the city could boast temples to Bel, Artagatis, Hadad, Artemis-Nanaia, Zeus Kyrios and others. A shrine, or mithraeum, to the Iranian deity Mithras was also constructed late in 168 BCE.

Rome, a long-time foe, acquired the city in 165 CE during the campaigns of Lucius Versus [130-169]. Under the Severan dynasty a permanent garrison developed in the North-East of the city to guard the Empire’s Eastern Front. Under Severus’ heir, Caracalla [188-198 CE], it became a colonia, a stronghold in the defensive chain or Limes.

At some point between 251- 254 CE the Sassanian war machine of the Iranian leader Shapur 1 [226-276 CE] started to rumble. In response a steep revetment was erected together with a huge rampart on the western wall of the city. In order to withstand a potential assault, “Wall Street” (as it was later termed), running parallel to the western or desert wall, was buried under sand together with its houses and monuments. A 20 metre-wide buttress was thus formed. This very action preserved for posterity the tempera-laden shrines of “Wall Street” – the Mithraeum, the 3rd Century House-Church and the synagogue, when Dura-Europos capitulated for the very last time in 256 CE.

The site was (re) discovered by chance during the Arab revolt of 1920 when British-Indian troops pitched camp. Several well-preserved wall paintings with scenes of the Roman commander Julius Terentius sacrificing to the gods were unearthed in (what was later identified as) the Temple to the Palmyrene Gods.

News of the discovery reached James Henry Breasted, archaeologist and founder of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, who was on expedition in Mesopotamia (beyond the Euphrates) at the time. On the 2nd of May 1920 Breasted, together with his colleague Daniel Luckenbill, crossed over from Abu Kamal to devote a day to the site. Breasted’s notes and Luckenbill’s photographs would later appear in the inaugural publication of the Oriental Institute in 1924, Oriental Forerunners of Byzantine Paintings. The conclusions would shape discussion about Dura-Europos and its art for decades to come.

The site was subsequently excavated by Franz Cumont of the French Academy [1922-23] and later by Yale University under Michael Rostovtzeff, Clark Hopkins and Frank Brown [1928-1937]. During Yale’s tenure the city was identified as the Dura cited in Parthian Stations by the 1st Century Greek Geographer, Isidore of Charax. The identification was secured with an inscription to the goddess Tyche, “the good fortune (tyche) of Dura” within a wall painting from the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods.

It was also under Yale’s leadership that the synagogue rose from the dust. It was the most sensational find of the sixth season [1932-33] and arguably the entire 10 year expedition.

Saul anointing David
Saul anointing David


This was in fact the second of two synagogues built on the same site opposite the Temple of Adonis: a short distance from both the main gate and the House-Church (the earliest securely dated Christian building ever to be discovered). The original and substantially smaller synagogue had evolved from a private house built in the Parthian age; as it was for the neighbouring Christian shrine.

Construction began afresh shortly after Roman rule. Concurrent with the developments of other public and private spaces to include the Mithraeum and the House-Church, the synagogue was renovated. It was given a colonnaded atrium and the House of Assembly (the shrine) was enlarged such that it now covered an entire city block in width. The date of the renovation (245 CE) was ascertained from an inscribed ceiling tile with mention of the benefactor, Samuel the leader, Abraham the treasurer and Arsakh the non-Jew or proselyte.

The synagogue’s House of Assembly was also embellished as part of the programme. Wall paintings, tempera on plaster or secco (not fresco), were added in 249/250 CE. These covered all four walls in five horizontal bands.

Dura Europos Synagogue West Wall with Torah Niche
Dura Europos Synagogue West Wall with Torah Niche

At the time of its unveiling in 1932, 40% of those images had been destroyed. 29 panels with just under sixty biblical scenes in three bands awaited; as did peripheral stone benches and an aedicula: a scallop-shaped niche for the Torah built in the western wall (which faced Jerusalem).

In diverse hue some of the most prominent narratives refashioned themselves in a very local setting: baby Moses in the basket with Pharaoh’s daughter as a Grecian water nymph, Moses crossing the Red Sea, the binding of Isaac, Saul anointing David, the investiture of Aaron (in Roman toga), Mordechai riding triumphant, Elijah restoring the widow’s son, the capture of the Ark by the Philistines and the defeat of the Philistine god Dagan (and destruction of his temple at Ashdod), are a few examples.

Upon the walls were also two sets of inscriptions: dedicatory Aramaic with less abundant Greek and graffiti inked on the “Purim Panel” (with Mordechai) in Middle Persian and Parthian – a “calling card” from unknown visitors.


The earliest commentaries about the synagogue and its murals derived from broader discussions of Western Art, its relationship with Christianity and the East.

In his work, Orient oder Rom (1901) Josef Strzygowski advanced the argument that Western Art was the result of national schools created within a Christian culture. One style evolved to the next. By definition Judaism was excluded. It was widely accepted that Judaism demanded, and its adherents followed, a literal understanding of the Second Commandment with its prohibition against graven images [Exodus 20: 45]. This, it was assumed, extended to all representation from decree in perpetuity. Quite simply, Jews did not produce Art.

Armed with such a premise the logical conclusion was one of incredulity. If the Jewishness of the paintings could not be denied then it was otherwise situated outside of a normative, rabbinic tradition. Two competing and conflicting voices were heard: aniconism or aberrance.

Erwin Goodenough went a step further. In, By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism (1935) and his 12 volume iconographic study, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman period (1953-1968) he read the paintings as a lost Hellenistic or mystical Judaism in opposition to the rabbinic tradition. This was the likely explanation for the brush and palette.

Other theories focused on stylistics and the paintings’ origins. The use of “frontality”, the depiction of figures front-on and not in side profile, was novel in the Greco-Roman world. Breasted surmised that, based on his preliminary survey, the Art of Dura-Europos was oriental and had nothing to do with Rome. These images filled the gap in explaining where, to his mind, Byzantine Art derived. There begot another dichotomy: the rivalry between West and East. This too bore upon the interpretations of the synagogue’s Art.

Thoughts turned to a pre-planned programme behind the artwork – whether it was a unified schema and the quest for its source. Based on the appearance of Jewish legends and post-biblical tales in later Christian and Jewish Art, and of the iconographic parallels with the earlier Dura paintings, Kurt Weitzmann waded into the debate. In his 1990 study (but based upon his much earlier material), The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art, Weitzmann hypothesized that manuscripts from a purported ancient library in Antioch, over 400 kilometres away, were the inspiration. Writing as late as 1980, David Wright, also of Princeton, offered a similar thought about templates. The paintings were, “too clumsy, and provincial in execution to have been invented independently without an iconographic model in that desert outpost.”

Clearly there was no case to be made for the creative energies of the people of Dura-Europos themselves.



Several studies in the 1970’s tackled the prevailing wisdom associated with the Second Commandment and its injunction; but it was not until the past 20 years when paradigms began to shift and voices, once stifled, could emerge. The frontiers of old became the conduits of the new with the publication of Annabel Wharton’s, Refiguring the Post-Classical City: Dura-Europos, Jerash, Jerusalem and Ravenna (1995), Kalman Bland’s, The Artless Jew: Mediaeval and Modern Affirmations and the Denial of the Visual (2000), Margaret Olin’s The Nation without Art: Examining Modern Discourses on Jewish Art (2001) and Steven Fine’s Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: towards a new Jewish Archaeology (2005).

Foremost was the role of historiography in debunking long held prejudices. Strzygowski’s thesis was deterministic. Jewish art, a product of diaspora, could not be understood within such framework. Jewish Art was not ostensibly transmitted to subsequent visual traditions by virtue of haphazard stateless existence. Further, the notion of unbridled allegiance to the Second Commandment rested on misunderstanding and a misconstruction of Judaism. It assumed that Judaism was an ossified religion: it did not evolve in its relation to a text which offered multiple interpretations. When read in conjunction with the story of Bezalel, Solomon’s craftsman, the injunction could only be understood as against idolatry and not representation (Exodus 31:2, 35:30).

6th Century CE Beit Alpha Synagogue mosaic (Akedah) Binding of Isaac
6th Century CE Beit Alpha Synagogue mosaic (Akedah) Binding of Isaac

The ancient mosaics of the Palestinian synagogues of Beta Alpha and Sepphoris, with their human depictions, strengthened the claim.  Appeals to Talmudic literature, such as the account of the 3rd Century Jews of Babylonia who made no objection to a royal statue in the synagogue of Nehardea (B Rosh Hashanah 24b) vis a vis Josephus’ account of the Jews of Antiquities [18.8.2 (264)] who did, illustrated the complexity further.

Regarding Weitzmann, Wright and the matter of manuscripts or copies – these were nothing more than arguments from silence. There was no evidence of any comparable, contemporaneous material. Weitzmann’s interest was in certifying the existence of manuscripts from which Christian Art derived – not the autonomy and voice of Jewish creativity – as Wharton disclosed.

Dura-Europos with its grid system
Dura-Europos with its grid system

From the general to the particular, the same scholar rehabilitated the city of Dura-Europos in popular conscience. It had been consistently viewed as an “outpost”, a “humble frontier town”, a “Roman border town” and not the medium-sized polis (city) at the boundary of civilisation itself.

Ten years after Wharton called attention to Jewish oral history as a guide to interpretation, Steven Fine advocated a holistic approach with inclusion of archaeology, art history, classical and rabbinic texts. He argued that Jewish Art in Late Roman-Byzantine period was an ethnic art which did participate in Roman culture but reflected the attitudes and needs of particular Jewish communities.  The Jews of Dura-Europos lived in parallel with the rabbis but were not necessarily influenced. Fine postulated a larger Jewish tradition, a koine, of which the rabbis were only one literate element.

By contextualising the synagogue, its murals and an over-looked Hebrew fragment of the Birkat ha-Mazon (“Grace after Meals”) cited in The Parchments and Papyri from 1959 (not Kraeling’s 1956 Final Report The Synagogue), he opined that Dura-Europos’s paintings must be interpreted within a liturgical context. The parchment anchored the community within a religious world shared by Babylonian and Palestinian rabbis. Binary oppositions of bygone scholars were now well and truly discredited.

Other scholars have explored new themes: the paintings in light of Jewish resistance to Rome and, conversely, integration into civic life. Feminism as well as the significance of the ceiling tiles has also generated debate.


Dura-Europos has witnessed a revival of late with exhibitions in Boston (2011), New York (2012) and the self-published, Dura Europos: a City for Everyman (2014) by Penny Young. Ms. Young adds the voice of the excavators’ personal testimonies (and that of her own) to illustrate the enduring appeal of the city.

That engagement has also extended to the press with sensationalist headlines in the Israeli nationalist newspaper Arutz Sheva, (“One of Oldest Known Synagogues Seized by ISIS”). It failed to mention that the actual synagogue murals are in the National Museum of Damascus, far removed from ISIS territory, where the House of Assembly (with its tiled ceiling) has been reconstructed in full.

The December 2014 report by UNITAR (United Nations Institute for Training and Research) entitled, “Satellite-based Damage Assessment to Cultural Heritage in Syria”, is more informative concerning the synagogue’s “footprint”, though no more pleasant a read. There is evidence of looting. The site remains inaccessible to archaeologists and the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums. Tragically, scholarship, in its deference, must abandon the corporeal for the archival.

That said, after 80 years of research is it not time to converge at the cross-roads and seek out the multiplicity of voices which remain stratified and buried in an ever increasing scholarly corpus?

However far-ranging many of the interpretations are, it should be evident that the synagogue of Dura-Europos is both a freeman and slave. It is unique. It exists within its own materiality and within a matrix of inter-dependent narratives. It sprung forth from a Graeco-Roman world of commonalities, disparities and shared histories. The artisans of the other monuments at Dura-Europos, the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods, the buried House-Church, call. The voices of pagans, Christians, proselytes, the hands behind the graffiti, beg to be heard. So too do the Jews (and non-Jews) who walked through the synagogue door. Murmurs from Palmyra, Rome, Babylonia and Palestine also infect the discourse.

But discerning the nexus is just the start. The task is to communicate in text or hypertext as Joyce directs and which I would like to develop in brief. Here the digital age is most definitely archaeology’s handmaiden. The very act of itemizing and cataloguing material finds from the field implores the Intel Processor. It also yearns for digitalization.

Yet my thought is less to do with databases and data-mining and more to do with the ebb and flow of knowledge and act of writing with which I began this essay. More specifically, it is a plea for the experimental narrative of the new generation of electronic writers. Today it is possible to shake up traditional textual structures and succumb to the world behind the computer screen.

In the hands of a skilled craftsman the digital essay is a formidable tool. Bibliographic and marginal voices previously confined to footnotes and end notes become the very opposite – headers – at the click of a mouse on a hyperlink. Sub-texts become supra-texts as the reader enters the discourse at various points and follows, selects, inverts or creates the narrative. Multiple voices exist but no one voice is dominant. Equally, with the use of multi-media embedded in the essay, images, statistics, charts, graphs, commentaries and notations are no longer relegated to the rear. There is no rear. There is only an interface as invisible as the Lares who stand watch. The end result for the reader may be more akin to the experience of an exhibition (with free rein to participate in no particular order) rather than simply perusing its catalogue.

This will not absolve comprehensive examination of the data available. But perhaps, just maybe, as the distant is drawn to the near, those tight-lipped secrets of the past will reveal themselves when we (Java) script anew. And with that I surrender my pen.


The author would like to thank Emma Cunlijfe, Steven Fine, Tessa Rajak, Karen Stern, Emma Loosley, and Jennifer Baird. 

*This article first appeared (abridged) in Jewish Quarterly Vol 62 Issue 1 2015 DOI: 10.1080/04490l0X.2015.1010389 © Adam Blitz 2015

About the author: Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. He writes on cultural heritage and its demise and maintains a blog at He is a member of PEN International. On Twitter @blitz_adam

The views expressed in the article are those of the author alone. Any errors or omissions are similarly those of the author. @blitz_adam on Twitter



About the Author
Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. He is a member of PEN International. The views expressed in the article above are those of the author alone. Twitter @blitz_adam
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