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Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews and Christians at Institute for the Study of the Ancient World
Ceiling Tile with Portrait of Heliodoros, an Actuarius (Roman Fiscal Official), Clay, with a Layer of Painted Plaster, H. 30.5 cm, W. 44.0 cm, D. 6.7 cm. From the House of the Scribes, Dura-Europos, 200–256 CE. Yale University Art Gallery , Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos: 1933.292. Photo: © 2011 Yale University Art Gallery.

NEW YORK, N.Y.- The ancient city of Dura-Europos, which stood at the crossroads of the Hellenistic, Persian, and Roman worlds for some five centuries, is the subject of an exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW). Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews, and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos tells the story of life in the city, located in present-day Syria, from the mid-second to mid-third century CE, when it thrived as a Roman military garrison. The exhibition is on view from September 23, 2011, through January 8, 2012.

Founded at the end of the fourth century BCE by Macedonian successors of Alexander the Great, Dura-Europos was successively occupied by Parthians and Romans before its destruction in the middle of the third century CE. It was home to an unusually multicultural population that—hailing from across a wide geographic swath—lived, worked, and worshipped side by side, speaking and writing in an exceptional variety of languages.

The thousands of archaeological treasures that have been uncovered at Dura include the world’s best-preserved ancient synagogue, with paintings of Biblical scenes that revealed a figural tradition in Jewish art, previously believed not to exist; the earliest Christian house-church, with the earliest-known baptistery; and numerous places of pagan worship.

Edge of Empires explores Dura’s multiplicity of religions, languages, and cultures through a presentation of 77 significant objects from the city and a display devoted to the history of archaeological excavation and discovery there. Artifacts on view range from elaborately painted ceiling tiles from the famous synagogue, to a painted shield, to such quotidian objects as a child’s leather shoe and an engagement ring.

ISAW Exhibitions Director and Chief Curator Jennifer Chi states, “The site of influential archaeological finds, Dura is an apt subject to be explored by ISAW, which is dedicated to illuminating the connections among various places and cultures of the ancient world. Moreover, as a city of extraordinary cultural diversity, Dura has great resonance for the modern world, where multiculturalism shapes the very nature and quality of daily life.”

The objects in Edge of Empires are on loan from the Yale University Art Gallery, and are drawn from material jointly excavated in the 1920s and 1930s by Yale University and the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.

Strategically sited above the Euphrates River, at the intersection of a major east-west trade route and the trade route that ran along the Euphrates, Dura-Europos was bordered on the east by the River and on the north and south by deep ravines. The city was therefore geographically protected on three sides, with only its western border open to attack, a vulnerability that was remedied in the later second-century BCE, with the construction of a large wall that became one of Dura’s salient features. Thus “Dura,” the Assyrian term for a fortified place, was used in addition to the name “Europos,” which reflects the Macedonian city of its founders.

Despite its natural and human-built fortifications, in the late second-century BCE Parthians traveling westward from Iran captured Dura. The city then served as an economic and administrative center on the western edge of the Parthian empire until 164 CE, when the Roman emperor Lucius Verus brought Syria, and thus also Dura-Europos, under Roman control. The city flourished as a military garrison until 256 CE, when it was destroyed by the Sasanians. Never again occupied by a significant number of people, the site of the cosmopolitan Roman town was exceptionally well preserved, with a wealth of artifacts that, upon their discovery, fundamentally altered our understanding of religious and military practice in the late Roman period.

The mix of distinct populations in Dura may be traced not only to the city’s history of rule by Greeks, Parthians, and Romans, but also to its role as an important way-station for caravans traveling from Arabia, Persia, and Syria toward the Mediterranean. Indeed, Hellenistic, Roman, Syrian, Arab, Jewish, and Christian soldiers, merchants, and slaves could all be found in Dura.

Excavation at Dura-Europos
Dura remained virtually unexplored from its destruction in the mid-third-century CE until its accidental rediscovery in 1920, when British troops digging a rifle pit came upon ancient wall-paintings in what turned out to be the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods (or Temple of Bel), one of the most spectacular pagan structures to be found at Dura.

Systematic excavations were begun by the French Academy in 1922, followed by a collaboration between the Academy and Yale that extended from 1928 until 1937.

The Yale–French team made thousands of discoveries, many of which had a dramatic impact on conventional notions of the ancient world. In addition to numerous places of worship, these included military equipment, papyri and parchments, and objects of daily life. Together, these provided a complex picture of the physical and social fabric of the Roman city and initiated some of the modern era’s most influential scholarship on the Late Antique period.

After a long hiatus, excavations at Dura began again in 1986, under the Mission Franco-Syrienne d’Europos-Doura, and are currently under the direction of archaeologists Pierre Leriche and A. Al Saleh.

Exhibition Overview
Edge of Empires begins with an installation of archival photographs that provide an overview of archaeological work and discoveries at Dura. These include images of the legendary directors of the Yale-French excavation, Franz Cumont and Michael Rostovtzeff, in the field, and of both the interiors of architectural spaces and exteriors of some of the city’s major monuments. Together, these reveal the extraordinary scale and nature of discoveries at the site, as well as its breathtaking geographic location and the astonishing degree of preservation of many of its architectural finds.

The exhibition next examines salient aspects of the life and culture of Roman Dura through the thematic display of important artifacts, several of them recently restored. This begins with an exploration of Roman military life and practice in the city. Articles of military equipment and dress, for example, include the superbly painted Roman military shield, or scutum, the best-preserved example of its type and distinctively High Imperial in character. Also on view are several Celtic-influenced bronze belt-ornaments, demonstrating the internationalism of the Roman military, which raised troops from all parts of the empire. Nearby, a series of well-preserved elements of bronze horse-armor and an iron Sasanian helmet give a sense of the heavily armed nature of combat between Roman soldiers and their Near Eastern opponents.

The Yale–French excavation at Dura uncovered inscriptions and graffiti that revealed the concurrent use of Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Parthian, Middle Persian, Hebrew, and Safaitic, bringing vividly to life the international character of the city’s population in the third century CE. A ceiling tile from the synagogue, for example, uses Aramaic for the names of some of the building’s donors, while a relief representing the goddess Nemesis and a priest, from one of the city gates, has a bilingual inscription in Greek and Palmyrene, a local Semitic dialect spoken in the nearby city of Palmyra. A wonderfully preserved altar is inscribed in Greek despite its dedication to a Palmyrene god. Indeed, Greek, the language of Dura’s founders, remained the language of culture and international business in the Roman period, and was the most commonly spoken and written of the many languages in Dura-Europos.

With caravans traveling to and through Dura on both north-south and east-west routes, the city was an active participant in international trade. This is reflected in the exhibition by a selection of pottery from the site. Fragments of fine glossy red-orange plates and bowls imported from ancient Tunisia and the Aegean coast are displayed alongside locally produced green-glazed pieces. More utilitarian wares include a plain, locally produced water jug and a large amphora from the Aegean that may have once contained a particular vintage of wine or olive oil.

Finally, the co-existence of multiple religions at Dura is evident in some of the most compelling objects to be unearthed at the site. A relief showing the god Herakles struggling heroically with the Nemean lion, and another in which he brandishes his club and holds the skin of the now-slain animal attest to the pagan god’s popularity at Dura, likely driven by the military population. Ten ceiling tiles from the synagogue, which have never before been on display as a group, not only indicate that Judaism flourished in third-century Dura, but also reveal the richness of this building’s interior decoration: the depiction of garlands, pine cones, and floral motifs on the tiles was clearly intended to convey the idea of abundance and fertility. Large-scale paintings from the baptistery of the earliest known Christian house-church provide an unprecedented look at church decoration during a period when Christians were still being persecuted. The paintings directly illustrate some of the miracles of Jesus and are part of a program that emphasizes salvation through baptism.

ISAW | Pagans | Jews | Christians |

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