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Dura-Europos Synagogue: Features & Preservation

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  • 0:04 Dura-Europos
  • 0:56 Architecture of the Synagogue
  • 2:25 Artwork of the Synagogue
  • 4:05 Preservation and Destruction
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

It's been called the Pompeii of the East. In this lesson, we'll explore the site of Dura-Europos and its famous synagogue, and see what it tells us about ancient Jewish societies.

Dura-Europos

In the 1930s, archaeologists working in Syria made a startling discovery. Under mounds of earth were buildings, beautifully preserved buildings that had survived the ravages of time. Sometimes called the Pompeii of the East, this was the city of Dura-Europos.

Dura-Europos was an ancient city on the Euphrates River. Originally called Europos and recognized as a gateway between East and West, it became known as Dura over time, which means fort. The fort was originally held by the Parthians, but captured by the Romans and incorporated into their empire around 165 CE. So, it's a fascinating find, but nothing sparked more fascination than the discovery of an ancient Jewish synagogue at the site. Recognized as one of the oldest synagogues in the world, it's an incredible glimpse into Jewish life on the outskirts of the Roman Empire.

Architecture of the Synagogue

Traditionally, the Jewish population lived around Jerusalem and worshiped at the Temple there. However, the Romans destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and the Jewish people were largely scattered. From this point on, their houses of worship were known as synagogues. This is what was found in Dura-Europos.

So, what did it look like? It was a basic cube-shaped structure, with high walls and a flat ceiling. If that sounds a little underwhelming to you, don't worry, you're not alone. The synagogue of Dura-Europos was not built as a synagogue; it was built as a modest house.

Discovery of the Torah niche, one of the architectural features that helped archaeologists identify this as a synagogue.
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We have to remember that Judaism was a strongly persecuted religion in the Roman Empire (as was Christianity, which the Romans treated as a sect of Judaism) so many Jews in Roman towns were underground. That seems to be the case here, and we've got several architectural clues to suggest that. For one, it's pretty clear that this was once a house, which was remodeled around 245 CE in order to create more interior space and rooms for worship. Secondly, the synagogue was found just inside the western wall of the city, which was the poorest neighborhood and a good place to hide the clandestine meetings of a marginalized people. In fact, the building next door seems to have been a Christian house of worship. Finally, the synagogue does not follow the strict rules set out by Jewish architectural law, which Jews took very seriously. This indicates that the synagogue was not really here by choice, but more as a matter of necessity.

Artwork of the Synagogue

The presence of the synagogue in Dura-Europos is fascinating enough, giving us a rare chance to see what life was like for Jews in Roman Syria, but this building actually has even more to offer. Remarkably preserved, its walls were found with original frescoes still intact.

This is unusual, and not just because the paintings survived. Traditionally, Jews of this time did not decorate their synagogues with frescoes, largely because representational artwork (and particularly painting) was highly taboo. Yet here in Dura-Europos was a temple with interior walls covered in murals of Biblical scenes, depicting Biblical figures. This is baffling to many archaeologists, who generally interpret it as a sign that the Jews in this city had been highly acculturated to Roman norms and artistic tastes.

Fresco depicting the discovery of baby Moses in the river.
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