An Ancient Synagogue in Damascus
By Samantha Sisskind
If you go to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Damascus, Syria, you’ll find hardly any obvious traces of Jewish life. There remains a school that is unidentifiable as a Jewish institution, a few doors with the Star of David engraved in the granite lintel of the doorways, a small unobtrusive synagogue, abandoned houses and storefronts and some dusty narrow streets. If you didn’t know it was there, it would be virtually unrecognizable as a relic of a once-vibrant Jewish community with a heritage and history centuries long. However, the major monument to Jewish life in the country lies in the National Museum of Syria, just a few minutes outside of the Old City. At the very end of the classical period wing, past the Greek, Roman and Palmyrene exhibits, you’ll find a reconstruction of a third century synagogue from the initially Syrian Greek city of Dura Europos, a trading hub along the Euphrates River. Not only will you see beautiful clay wall and ceiling tiles painted with flora and fauna, but also frescoes from the walls of the synagogue depicting scenes from the Torah and portraits of Abraham, Ezra and Moses.
The frescoes from the synagogue at Dura Europos tell a fascinating story of one of the first synagogues erected in the Jewish Diaspora. Hidden under a ramp built by the Persians at the end of the third century C.E., the synagogue’s frescoes were undisturbed for over fifteen hundred years afterward until its discovery by the British military in 1921. The style and character of the frescoes at the synagogue borrow from Hellenistic art, and the architecture draws from the dominant Byzantine religious art culture of the time of the temple’s construction. Of the four frescoed walls, the best preserved is the Western Wall, which benefited from the ramp’s direct protection and faces Jerusalem. Surrounding a permanent ark niche carved into the wall are paintings of David as the King over Israel; the Red Sea crossing; the infancy of Moses; the anointing of David; Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; the sacrifice of Isaac; Moses receiving the tablet and many other biblical stories. The lack of any archaeological evidence for a gender separation barrier in the prayer room makes the worship culture of the Dura Europos Jews even more curious and divergent from the traditional Jewish practices.
While artistic renditions of animals and scenes from the Torah have been found on Jewish artifacts from that time period, nothing of this magnitude and detail has ever been discovered. Some scholars maintain that the Jews in Dura Europos were influenced by the decorated Christian churches in the same city and Dura Europos was home to several religious groups and tolerant of the faiths of all its residents. Yet the more prevalent theory is that the synagogue was decorated and painted to resemble a Roman temple so that worshippers could avoid religious persecution.
On the surface, it appears that the Jews of Dura Europos diverted from their faith in order to avoid punishment from the Romans. However, upon second glance, they seem more like Hannah and her sons in the Hanukkah story, who refused to break the commandments or apostatize, even when faced with execution. Like them, the Jews of Dura Europos prayed under the Romans’ noses and defied Roman law in order to stay true to their Jewish heritage while they were far from the Holy Land.
The Dura Europos Jewish community’s beliefs and interpretations of the Torah remain a mystery to this day, but the synagogue is a monument to the development and transition of Jewish faith and practices in the Diaspora. It is a testament to the existence of Jewish life outside the Holy Land, and a rare example of the resilience of a Jewish community in the face of unfriendly foreign occupation.
Traveler’s Note: If you are able to pay a visit to Syria and you’d like to go to the National Museum in Damascus to see the frescoes from the synagogue at Dura Europos, don’t plan your trip for the upcoming year. The entire classical wing is currently closed for renovations, and a few other exhibits are closed for renovations as well. Visiting to the ruins themselves may be slightly disappointing as little remains but rocky foundations, and would require much imagination to picture the city as it once was. However, viewing the museum in Damascus first and then traveling to the historical site near the modern town of Salhieh will give you more context and insight, and would be a much more educational and beneficial experience.
This article referenced the book “Dura Europos,” written by Bashir Zahdi and published by the National Museum of Syria in Damascus, as well as a very well synthesized and researched article analyzing the historical significance of the art and architecture of the synagogue.