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December 21, 1979 - Image 64

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1979-12-21

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64 Friday, December 21, 1979


Historic Dura-Europos Archeology in Goldman-Edited Volume


Prof. Hopkins recalls the
discovery of the synagogue
at Dura-Europos:
"I clearly remember when
the foot of fill dirt still cover-
ing the back wall was
undercut and fell away, ex-
posing the most amazing
succession of paintings!
Whole scenes, figures and
objects burst into view, bril-
liant in color, magnificent
in the sunshine. Though
dwarfed against the vast
backdrop of the sky and the
tremendous mass of the em-
bankment, they seemed
more splendid than all else
put together."
Prof. Hopkins stared in
astonishment as his Arab
workman cleared the dirt
from the synagogue wall
that had been hidden for
more than 1,600 years. No
one had dreamed of finding
a synagogue of the Third
Century CE still standing
on the eastern edge of the
Syrian desert. And no one
would have believed possi-
ble that an ancient oriental
synagogue would have
walls covered with paint-
ings drawn from Exodus,
Numbers, I Samuel, the
Book of Esther, I Kings, etc.

The discovery and ex-
cavation in the 1930s of
the border town of
Dura-Europos precipit-
ously perched on a cliff
overlooking the Eup-
hrates River are almost
as exciting as its history.
Hopkins weaves both
stories together in "The
Discovery of Dura-
Europos," with 78 photo-
graphs recording the rich

Roman cameos, and Greek
statues. The shopkeepers
and craftsmen of Dura bar-
gained and prayed in var-
ious dialects of Greek,
Pahlevi, Aramaic, Latin
and Hebrew under the
watchful eyes of Roman
legionaries in the fateful
Third Century CE.
They must have been
nervous troops, for the pax
romana in Asia was very
fragile. From the east, from
across the Euphrates, came
the saber rattlings of a new
Persian dynasty, the Sasa-
nian, that wanted to restore
all Western Asia to the fief-
dom of their Persian ances-
tors — Cyrus, Darius,
Xerxes and Artaxerxes.
Western Asia was once
again to be the Persian em-
pire tinder the Sasian king
Shaput. I. In the course of
his western sweep of 256 CE
he laid siege to Dura,
stormed its walls, emptied
its houses and streets, and
returned it to the desert
These changing for-
tunes of Dura were
painstakingly revealed
month by month as the ar-
cheologists dug out Roman
baths, Parthian temples,
Greek shrines, merchants'
shops, a Christian baptis-
tery, civic archives, and the
armored skeletons of
soldiers, still posed as they
fell in the final onslaught
against the city walls.
In the course of this rich
harvest of finds, a worker
reported to Hopkins the
jagged edge of a wall of
painted plaster sticking out
of the embankment piled up
against the city fortifica-
Hopkins had the line of
plaster followed, outlining
the four walls of a very large
room buried beneath. The
room was in a residential
section just to the north of
the city gate. The workmen
early West. A mixed were warned to dig out the
population of Arabs, Sy- painted walls with utmost
rians, Greeks Iranians, caution to guard against
Romans and Jews raised their collapsing. Not too
their families behind the long before, the lives of two
city walls, prayed to their workmen were lost when a
gods in their different wall they were working on
temples, supplied the suddenly fell and buried
troops moving in and out them.
of the city, traded with
Finally, by the last week
the merchant caravans
coming in from the des- of November 1932, suffi-
dirt had been removed
ert, bought and sold in
the city's bazaar, and from the room to allow the
buried their dead in un- dirt to be cut away from the
derground tombs in the plaster face of one wall and
to expose several panels of
Like a frontier town in
Hopkins and his
early Kansas, Dura served
amazed companions had
as a way station, a rest stop, no idea what they had
on the long highway be- found. There were troops
tween East and West.
dressed in Roman armor;
Spices from India, silks probably the hall was
from China, and furs from part of a Roman military
Central Asia were traded temple. But then they
across the counters of the slowly read an Aramaic
souq for Egyptian glass, inscription between the

One of Alexander the •
Great's generals had
founded the town as a mili-
tary outpost and caravan
stop, but his Greek suc-
cessors were forced to relin-
quish it as their holdings in
Syria shrank.
Parthian-Iranian troops
marched into the walled
town in the late Second
Century BCE, occupying
the fortress as a defensive
shield for their expanding
A few hundred years la-
ter, Roman commercial am-
bitions in Asia dictated the
need for a firm line of de-
He recalls how Dura- fense along the Tigris and
Europos was accidentally Euphrates Rivers. Thus, the
rediscovered by a company citizens of Dura in the early
of British troops retreating Second Century CE
down the Euphrates when watched the Roman legions
the Arabs broke into open troop down "Main Street,"
revolt in 1920. The soldiers take over the governor's
had dug in for the night in palace, and begin to build
the corner of some old ruins their barracks and temples.
and found life-size figures The people of Dura adjusted
painted on the plastered to their new, Roman over-
lord, much as the Syrian
British headquarters sent Arabs adjusted to the Twen-
tieth Century invasion of
the American ar-
cheologist James Henry archeologists.
Dura had been a bustl-
Breasted to investigate. He
had but a single day to
examine the paintings be-
fore dashing for safety
across the Syrian desert to
the coast. What little he saw
was sufficient to convince
him that the crumbling for-
tress held a previously un-
read chapter in ancient his-
Dura-Europos received
the full archeological
treatment by teams of
French and American ex-
cavators for 12 years, four of
them under the direction of
Clark Hopkins. Over these
years, he and his colleaguei
uncovered the remains of a
heavily walled border town
that had weathered the
political and military
big border town, resem-
storms that swept Western
bling in many ways the
Asia from 300 BCE until
raw frontier towns of our
256 CE.

(Editor's note: Perhaps
the most important in this
century's archeological
findings is described in
the Yale University vol-
ume "The Discovery of
The volume describing
the discovery was by
Prof. Clark Hopkins. Its
completion is credited to
Dr. Bernard Goldman, _
director of the Wayne
State University Press
and professor of art and
finds and the day-to-day
art history at the univer-
life on a desert dig.

The town had been
abruptly put to death by
invading Persians,
abandoned to the desert
sands, and had even lost
its name, until the spade
of the archeologist
brought it back to a new

An aerial view of Dura-Europos, Syria.


reveal more paintings:
Jacob's dream, the plague of
hail and fire over Egypt,
Moses leading the children
of Israel, the numbering of
the tribes, the high priest
Aaron before the Temple,
Haman forced to lead the
horse of Mordecai.
In the center of the wall
facing the Holy Land was
revealed the niche that once
held the Torah scrolls;
painted above was Ab-
raham sacrificing Isaac and
the Temple menora.

Today, the synagogue
of Dura is world-famous
as the earliest and only
discovered synagogue to
have a sanctuary covered
with paintings based on
the Bible. Unfortunately
we know almost nothing
else about the Jewish
community there.

The synagogue had been
made from converted
houses, and it must have
stood in the center of the
Jewish enclave on the west-
ern edge of the town, sur-
rounded by pious houses
and shops.
We know that in the first
centuries CE, in lower
Mesopotamia, there were
important Jewish centers of
learning. But we have no
mention of the Jews of Dura
from any sources other than
the synagogue itself. Here
lived a community of Jews
who, although lost by his-
tory entirely, now speaks
eloquently across the chasm
of centuries through the
medium ' of their
synagogue's paintings.
Hopkins had the murals
detached from their brick

walls. He argued to have
them sent to the museum at
Yale University, but the
Syrian government insisted
on keeping them as national
treasures. The paintings
were shipped to Damascus
where a museum was built
around the reconstruction
of the synagogue; and there
the paintings remain today.

The expedition's artist
made exact copies of the
murals while they were
still at Dura, and these
reproductions are now
housed at Yale, the only
record in America of the

A combination of the
American Depression and
the first rumblings in ad-
vance of World War II
brought the excavations of
Dura to a close in 1937. The
outlines of entire city blocks
of buildings yet unexca-
vated can be traced under
the sand. Dozens of un-
explored tombs stretch out
into the desert. Hundreds
more fragments of writing
on parchment and papyrus
undoubtedly remain buried
and unread.
Probably the more impor-
tant buildings of Dura were
excavated in the 1930s. But,
the completely unexpected
discovery of the synagogue
stands as constant reminder
that one can never be sure of
what lies buried under the
Clark Hopkins was forced
to put down his pen in 1976
at the age of 80. His book,
like the synagogue of Dura,
is a tribute to his skills as
archeologist, a volume for
both layman and scholar.

feet of a large figure:
"Moses, when he went
out from Egypt and cleft
the sea."

"A pity," writes Hopkins,
"we could not, by some
magic, tell that ancient
Dura writer how much this
inscription meant to us."
Now the careful remov-
ing of the debris began to

Painting of the priest Aaron from the Dura-
Europos Synagogue.

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