Yale Shows Ancient Murals of Synagogue Scientists Unearthed
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Yale Shows Ancient Murals of Synagogue Scientists Unearthed

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Murals depicting scenes from the Old Testament found in a Jewish Synagogue in Dura-Europos dating from 244 A.D., will go on public exhibition tomorrow in the Yale Gallery of Fine Arts. The synagogue was found in the Syrian city of Dura during excavations this season by Yale and the French Academy of Inscriptions. The exhibition is one of the features of Yale’s 232nd Commencement.

The murals, eleven of which are complete and six in fragments, throw light on the origin of illustrations of the Old Testament as they are found in later illuminated manuscripts. The scenes represented on the walls of the synagogue illustrate some of the most famous and most familiar stories of the Old Testament: the Exodus from Egypt and the drowning of the host of Pharaoh in the Red Sea; the Numbering of the Tribes of Israel in the presence of Moses and Aaron; Moses and the Burning Bush; Moses holding in his hands the Tablets of the Law; the destruction of the idols of the pagan gods; the Aaronic priesthood; and other scenes, which have as yet not been identified.


“It is clear that when the excavation is complete, and this work cannot be finished until next season, the walls of the synagogue will furnish us with a set of illustrations to the stories of the Old Testament, comparable with the illuminated manuscripts of a much later date and the mosaics and paintings of the early Christian churches”, Professor Clark Hopkins, of Yale, director of the excavations, reports.

“Besides the frescoes on the walls, there was found in the center of the room a monumental seat in the form of a niche. The back of the seat is decorated with geometric patterns, while the top was finished with a great shell much like those in the niches of modern mosques. On the face of the top are depicted the seven-branched candlestick, the Temple and the scene of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.

“I think that few excavators in this century have had the honor and privilege of reporting more astounding and magnificent discoveries than those made this season in Dura. Digging along the great earth embankment north of the main gate of the city we found the chief room of a synagogue, a room thirteen and a half meters wide and five meters long. The back wall is preserved in part to a height ranging from over five to over six meters; the side walls decline sharply along the embankment; the front wall stands between two and three meters high. We have dared so far to dig only two and a half meters down, but as far as we have dug we have found the walls completely covered with a most magnificent series of frescoes. Eleven scenes are complete, some six others we have in part without counting the frescoes of the front and side walls. The roof of the synagogue was adorned with painted tiles of which more than one hundred were found in an excellent state of preservation.

“The year in which this synagogue was built is known exactly. A painted inscription in the Aramaic language on one of the walls tells us that Samuel, son of Ieddeos, the presbyter of the Jews, built the synagogue in the second year of the Emperor Philip the Arab—a date corresponding to 244 A.D., according to our reckoning. The accuracy of the date is confirmed by its repetition in terms of the era of the Seleucid kings and almost the same inscription is found again in Greek on one of the painted tiles from the ceiling.”

The common belief that it is contrary to the Jewish religion to have Jewish edifices decorated with paintings is not shared by many leading scholars in the field of archaeology and has been contradicted by many recent discoveries, according to Dr. Michael I. Rostovtzeff, Sterling Professor of Ancient History and Classical Archaeology at Yale. Recently-excavated synagogues in Palestine and Trans-Jordania, dating from the fifth and sixth centuries, A.D., contain many floor-mosaics.

In one great series of these frescoes brought back to Yale there are scenes of the Exodus. One sees the walls of Egypt beset by the plagues of hail and fire, the Israelites fleeing with the utensils taken from their Egyptian masters, and Moses leading toward the wilderness.

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