Indiana University Bloomington

Dura-Europos Art and the Roman Middle East

Sam Stubblefield, religious studies

University of Oxford, February 2016

What can the religious art of Dura-Europos tell us about religious 

cultural exchange and diversity in the Roman East?

When Dura Europos was discovered in the 1920s, a flood of scholarship ensued because the city’s architectural, military, and artistic remains were well preserved. As Annabel Wharton has shown, a great deal of ink has been spilled under explicit or discreet Orientalizing ideologies: scholars operating with Orientalist lenses have tended to homogenize their portrayals of the Durene cultural milieu, while others have only derived value from Dura Europos insofar as the city is able to define and champion certain Western interests. Once one begins to resist such tendencies, however, a different picture of Dura can emerge. In this essay I will focus on two ways in which Durene religious art promoted interaction between cultures: first, because it fostered different communal identities and thus competition; and second, because it was situated in spaces and ideologies in such a way that those who interacted with that art (sometimes) came to see their religious identity as their primary identity, at least for a time. This second function was effected either by an artistic program that encouraged cultural diversity through its overt representation of different gods from different cultures (such as in the temple of Bel), or it was effected by an artistic program that depicted universalizing motifs (such as in the mithraeum). After explaining these two functions of Durene art, I will address problems that arise when we attempt to generalize the particularities of Dura Europos to its wider east Roman context.

The sacred spaces which contained Durene religious art enveloped their worshipers. Whoever entered the synagogue, temple, mithraeum, or house church (domus ecclesiae) would be presented with a three-dimensional presentation of a certain cultural awareness expressed in religious terms. Through repeated liturgical and ideological participation in cult at Dura, one’s identity would be increasingly informed by myths, rituals, homilies, and so forth; and, either directly or indirectly, the art would encourage sentiments of superiority within such a variegated religious marketplace as Dura.

The synagogue provides the most striking example of overt inclinations to encourage the superiority Jewish culture. To the right of its central niche are two panels

where two male cult statues of local type (looking rather like the painted Adonis familiar from a local temple) are shown flat on their faces outside a cultic building whose door is standing wide open. The two statues evidently represent the same image at different moments. The second statue has his head and some extremities detached from the torso, and both obviously have tumbled out of the temple along with assorted cultic utensils in disarray.

For the already initiated, such a depiction would reinforce the glory of Israel’s god, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, over his weaker competitors. This is the correct god to worship because he prevails not only over deities from long ago but also from gods right here, right now, in Dura. Should this be a particularly astute observer, he or she would recognize that the depiction is of Dagon and the Philistine’s defeat by the Ark of the Covenant––a defeat, it should be added, that occurred after thousands of Hebrews had themselves been slaughtered in battle. Whether or not the Dagon panels, as well as several others, may have elicited “provincial disdain for the center,” they by all means upheld the glory of the Jewish god. In a post-temple period, such an affirmation of defeat-then-triumph would reaffirm the rightness of a Jewish identity during the third century c.e., well after the temple’s destruction.

Importantly, inscriptional evidence in the synagogue suggests that this Jewish identity was reinforced in a number of ways, thereby suggesting a lack of cultural uniformity in the synagogue community itself. Ten inscriptions written in Middle Persian appear on the synagogue frescoes, each with the scribe’s own name. In the panel of Mordecai and Esther, Wharton states that

These texts, obviously countenanced by the community, involve a complementarity of status: the act of inscribing the paintings permanently affirms the authority of the authors at the same time that it confers their privilege on the images. The dipinti thus presume additional strata of meaning within the synagogue frescoes, further contradicting the notion that these images were closed or canonical in their signification.

While Wharton is in this case arguing against previous tendencies to narrativize and draw direct analogs between the frescoes and specific texts, her analysis of the scribal dipinti reveals a further layer of multiculturalism and superiority. All ten inscriptions express approval, either in a general sense, in the form of an aretalogy, or as some commentary on the image itself. One such inscription reads:

The month of Frawardin in

The year 15 and the day Rasin

When Yazdantahm-Farrabay,

The scribe of Tahm [or, valiant scribe],

[came] to this house, and he

Approved [or appreciated] this picture. 

Yazdantahm-Farrabay is obviously an outsider; that he marks the date of his visit and mentions that he came and approved of the Esther and Mordecai fresco suggests that he was of a high enough status both to have the authority to actually etch the dipinto and deem it necessary to do so in the first place. The presence of solely Middle Persian scribal inscriptions for similar dipinti on that particular panel indicates that regulars of the synagogue, or perhaps even residents of Dura in general, did not themselves deem it necessary to take the initiative to write commentary or aretalogies on the frescoes; the Greek and Aramaic inscriptions are on a higher register in the synagogue, and are composed in more formal language. Thus, the Persian inscriptions at least expressed approval of the narratives depicted on certain frescoes in the synagogue, and, consequently, they could be interpreted using a hermeneutics of cultural superiority, and perhaps reveal the support of foreigners (or, less likely, local dignitaries) who are not ethnically Jewish but nevertheless possess some affinity for the Jewish god. There are problems, however, with overestimating the certainty of what can only be, in the case of scribal dipinti, speculation.

Before getting to those problems, I must describe one other aspect of how cultural diversity and cultic uniformity interact with one another to encourage collective Jewish identity. The distribution of the synagogue’s Greek, Aramaic, Persian, and Hebrew inscriptions is telling:

The majority of Aramaic inscriptions at Dura are from the synagogue, and this “Jewish” square script appears only in the synagogue inscriptions, in the Hebrew liturgical text, and in a Jewish marriage contract discovered at Dura. The Aramaic inscriptions––unlike the Greek and Persian wall and ceiling tile inscriptions––were written in a script that was identifiably “Jewish” and apparently conveyed Jewishness to the community and perhaps to Aramaic-speaking non-Jews as well. If the goal had been cross-cultural communication, Palmyrene might have been a far more useful Semitic language/script. This suggests the centrality of Jewish Aramaic within a Jewish community that drew from Greek, Aramaic, and Persian speakers, Jews from both sides of the Roman/Persian divide.

Moreover, the biblical scenes are themselves labeled in Greek and Aramaic rather than Hebrew, which suggests to Steven Fine that they may have served didactic purposes for gentiles unfamiliar with the various figures of Jewish history and liable to conflate them with non-Jewish analogs. Thus, at least three layers of textuality present themselves: the first being the Persian inscriptions already mentioned, the second being the markedly “Jewish” square script, and the third being the Greek inscriptions used to label the frescoes. While Jewish Aramaic may have been the central language, as Fine asserts, the languages both spoken and written in the synagogue were multiple, and their use carried different implications. To engage in more speculation, the Greek texts indicate that the synagogue was frequented by those who were unaccustomed to Jewish culture (Jewish people would surely have recognized Aaron and so not have needed the label). They also indicated that synagogue leaders placed a high value on making sure that viewers knew full well when they were looking at a portrayal of a Jewish figure or someone recorded in Jewish history and when they were not. Furthermore, they reckoned that the use of Greek in doing so did not compromise the synagogue’s “Jewishness” enough to forgo the practical necessity of using Greek in the inscriptions. At the same time, the Jewish Aramaic inscriptions may provide, among other things, another layer of cultural uniformity insofar as the script in which they are written distinctly signifies the synagogue as “Jewish”; and, in addition to the liturgy in Hebrew, the entire effect of being in the synagogue would elicit both multiplicity (Greek, Persian, Aramaic, Hebrew) and unity (frescoes, torah, Hebrew, Jewish Aramaic). The semantic content of both the liturgical texts and the panels would, however, supersede the cultural particularities insofar as they bespeak of a god superior to all other gods, a god to whom alone glory is due. Again, we should be wary of the temptation to exaggerate an attitude of overt superiority, to portray the synagogue-goers as rebels fighting against the encroachment of competing deities within Dura––not because the visual program can’t be interpreted in such a  manner, but because it can’t be determined whether it was interpreted in such a manner, and, if so, by whom. While Jaś Elsner makes a point of emphasizing the potentialities rather than the actualities of resistance in the synagogue, and, indeed, in Dura at large, he does want to assert the synagogue’s imagery of resistance:

There is no doubt that the synagogue frescoes actively promulgate Judaism by denigrating other religions. These are specifically the religions of the local Syrian environment––the worship of Baal and Dagon, as represented in scripture, and their contemporary Durene successors such as Bel and Adonis.

This was, of course, the intent of those who installed the panels and probably that also of the benefactors whose names were inscribed on its walls. We need not, however, extend the resistance ideology to everyone who supported the synagogue and passed through its doors, such as the Persian scribes. Yazdantahm-Farrabay could have conceivably approved of the Mordecai and Esther fresco not out of devotion to the Jewish god as a god superior to all others, but rather because the fresco is a positive depiction of Persia. The point is that intention does not necessarily translate into interpretation, and also, as I will show, that explicit resistance imagery need not be the only way for cultures (or cults) to express their superiority––it could be hiding in plain sight. The Dura synagogue provides a stunning example of a site that had to live with two contending necessities: the necessity to assert cultural particularity and superiority and the practical necessity to accede to the highly labile diversity of the various Durene peoples. Thus, a tension between syncretism and essentialism played itself out among the residents of Dura Europos . . . but it was not always (or, perhaps, often) a tension explicitly felt. Neither the mithraeum nor the domus ecclesiae at Dura Europos contains explicit imagery that would have fostered antipathy toward other cults. They had no Dagon lying in the sand. Be that is it may, one cannot assume, therefore, that the Durene Jews possessed some introverted mentality of resistance, or, on the other hand, that the Christians and Mithraists produced no discourse of superiority. Based upon the scant historical evidence, neither can be assumed.

What can be assumed are potentialities, and the Durene representations reveal a competitiveness not only explicitly (as in the synagogue) but also––and more importantly––implicitly through exclusive displays of cult images. For example, the mithraeum only includes Mithraic imagery. While its associations with Roman military presence at Dura give it associations with other sites in the military camp, such as the temple of Azzanathkona and of Jupiter Dolichenus, the important factor is their exclusive display of images. A Roman soldier may very well have frequented both the mithraeum and one of the other temples, but it does not follow that their artistic programs themselves supported multiple cult participation. I must be clear: if any evidence of physically violent antipathy between Durene cults existed, it does not survive in the archaeological record. The subjective experience of Dura’s religious economy was likely much more subliminal: because a worshiper’s identity is informed by participation in ritual, he or she identifies and is identified as, say, someone who spends a lot of time in the domus ecclesiae or the temple of Bel at the expense of time spent in other cult buildings––or indeed time not spent at cult buildings. Nevertheless, the characteristics of Durene religious art are even more telling when put in context. Conflation of different cults throughout the Roman empire was widespread during the final period of Dura’s existence. In what is now London, the Walbrook Mithraeum included “a mix of objects from a whole variety of Roman cults . . . in addition to the sculptures of Mithras himself. These included heads of Minerva and Serapis, as well as images of Mercury, Dionysus, and the Great Mother.” The situation at Walbrook suggests if not an equality among deities, at least a hierarchy in which all were honored to various degrees. If such an arrangement existed for Durene worshipers, their religious art does little to support it. Rather, even in the case of the temple of Bel, wherein multiple deities were in fact worshiped, those gods do not include Mithras, Christ, or the Jewish god. One could, of course, argue that the temple of Bel didn’t need an image of the tauroctony because Dura already had an image of the tauroctony, but that would ignore the sheer separateness of Durene cult sites––if not geographically, then in terms of representational exclusivity. If someone wanted to worship multiple gods at different locations within the Dura, the city’s religious art would do little in itself to encourage such behavior.

This representational exclusivity perhaps had a purpose. People from different cultural backgrounds worshiped at the various cults sites in Dura:

A broad sector of the community worshiped in the Temple of Bel––Roman soldiers as well as Semites and Macedonians; Jews of varied origins, including a proselyte, left their mark in the synagogue; and names common in Syria as well as in the Latin West appear in the Christian building, all written in Greek.

In this way, disparate peoples were at once unified and demarcated in part through the Durene visual programs. One’s identity as a worshiper of Mithras, Christ, or Bel superseded one’s identity as Syrian, Roman, or Jew at least at some times, in some places, and in different degrees. Whereas the Christian, Jewish, and Mithraic art emphasized singularity––the domus ecclesiae only has Christian imagery, for example––it was a singularity that allowed for the participation of a diverse cultural milieu. Alternatively, the temple of Zeus Megistos’ visual program itself encouraged cultural exchange by displaying multiple deities associated with specific localities and/or cultures:

An inscription of AD 169/170, which dedicated sections of the renovation, shows that Zeus Megistos was still worshipped as the cult figure. Fragments of the cult statue, which appears to date to this period, indicate that Baalshamin, probably the Palmyrene equivalent of Zeus Megistos, was also worshipped in this temple. Sculpted reliefs of the camel god Arsu were also found, as were many sculpted fragments of Heracles.

Thus these gods––Roman, Semitic, Greek––came together in an artistic conglomeration representative to some extent of the demographic make-up of Dura itself. Conversely, one mustn’t then exaggerate the singularity of the mithraeum, synagogue, or domus ecclesiae at the expense of Durene particularity: as Wharton asserts, the baptistery, synagogue, and temple of Bel were “probably produced by Durene artists. At least, no compelling argument has been made for the importation of artisans for any of these decorations.” This observation further exposes the many axes of tension upon which Durene art, and, by extension, Durene peoples, had to navigate on a day to day basis. To conclude, the degree to which other cities and towns of the Roman East were embedded in cultural exchange through trading and military presence corresponds with their comparability to the remarkable crossroads that was Dura Europos. Durene art can reveal more general tendencies of cultural exchange and diversity common to much of the East for cities that were like Dura, although elements such as trading, military presence, and architecture must be taken into account when drawing generalizations. That being said, I will hazard to describe some propensities found in Dura: 1) visual representation is not necessarily analogous to cultural diversity, though it can be; 2) visual representation operates in (often latent) competition with other visual representations, thus reflecting the “economics” of cultural exchange in a given locality; and 3) visual representation simultaneously encourages differentiation and likeness depending upon the viewer and the features of a particular community of viewers. If Dura was exceptional in its cultural diversity, it was an exceptionality of degree more than of kind. The city’s art reflects as much.


Brody, L.R. and G.L. Hoffman, eds. Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity. Chesnut Hill, MA: McMullen Museum of Art, 2011.

Edwell, P. Between Rome and Persia: The Middle Euphrates, Mesopotamia and Palmyra under Roman Control. London: Routledge, 2008.

Elsner, J. Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire ad 100-450. Oxford: University Press, 1998.

–––. Roman Eyes: Visuality and Subjectivity in Art and Text. Princeton: University Press, 2007.

Fine, S. Art, History and the Historiography of Judaism in Roman Antiquity. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Wharton, A.J. Refiguring the Post Classical City: Dura Europos, Jerash, Jerusalem, and Ravenna. Cambridge: University Press, 1995.

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