March 30: ‘Pompeii in the desert’

2012/03/30 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1920 Indian soldiers under British command, digging a trench in eastern Syria, happened upon an underground chamber full of wall paintings.

The remarkably crisp paintings were the first evidence that Something Was Here: it was the ancient city of Dura Europos, a city of incredible pedigree.  Founded around 300 BC by Macedonian Greeks, later absorbed into the Roman Empire, finally sacked by the Persians.  In the midst of this changing-of-hands, and at a major geographic crossroads, the city expanded multiculturally, with a significant degree of religious toleration, leading to the establishment of the two greatest archaeological finds in the settlement: a richly decorated synagogue and a large house-church (basically a pretty typical Mediterranean atrium dwelling with the addition of an impressive baptistery).  The construction of Roman defenses and the city’s ultimate abandonment preserved the artistic accomplishments of Dura’s Jews and Christians.

Although not the oldest synagogue known, Dura’s (ca. 244) is the best-preserved very old synagogue that has been studied, especially to preserve such extensive ornament.  Its frescoes encircle the assembly room, which features an elaborate Torah niche, comprising images that are believed to be the earliest biblical narrative.  Predating the Edict of Milan, the house-church (ca. 235) is the oldest Christian place of worship that has been discovered; it is especially notable for its large baptistery and decoration, which includes the oldest known Christian images anywhere.  In both the church and synagogue the images remain clear and communicative; if you know anything of the Old Testament and see the image above, you don’t need me to tell you what the picture portrays.

Had the city survived and flourished, the buildings and their art would have been lost to “development.” As it is, they are vivid evidence of life in this imperial outpost almost two millenia old.

Image: Pharaoh’s wife discovers Moses (Synagogue, Dura Europos)

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