The Synagogue of Dura


Replica of the synagogue at Dura

Perhaps no city better encapsulates the religious diversity of Ancient Iran than the Roman-Parthian frontier town of Dura Europos. Perched above the Euphrates in eastern Syria, Dura was a crossroads town, and later military encampment, that was home to a diverse yet cohesive population. Founded by a Seleucid general in 202 BC, captured and expanded by the Parthians, taken by the Romans, and finally besieged and plundered by the Sasanians in 256 CE, Dura had a lengthy and tumultuous history. Each epoch of its existence brought with it new waves of settlers from across the region; among the densely packed buildings of Dura were temples to Zeus, Athena, Adonis, Mithra, a host of Mesopotamian and Palmyrene gods, as well as one of the world's oldest surviving churches and a strikingly decorated synagogue. 

By the time of its destruction, Dura was not just a multicultural urban hub, but a strategic military outpost for the Roman Empire. In 256 CE, the Sasanian king Shapur I successfully besieged and sacked Dura. The city was abandoned and never again inhabited. The ruins of Dura were accidentally uncovered in 1920, sparking widespread academic interest and archaeological excavations. Having been totally abandoned, Dura was well preserved, and the digs revealed (among many remarkable finds) near-pristine frescoes. The most complete cycle of frescoes was found in the city's synagogue. Click through the images below to see the Biblical scenes painted on the synagogue walls.

These paintings are remarkable examples of the Parthian artistic tradition. Note how the characters face the viewer - this is known as frontality, an aspect of Parthian-era art in which subjects appear to break the fourth wall and address their audience head-on. Also, notice the carefully drawn geometric details - the scales of the warriors' armor, the bricks of the temple, and the creases of each piece of clothing. Finally, many characters, despite coming from stories and places far removed from the Parthians, are dressed in stereotypical Parthian attire. The long tunic, trousers, and high boots constitute the typical Iranian riding outfit. Others wear togas, again reflecting the blend of Roman and Persian fashion at Dura. 

Religious Diversity at Dura Europos