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The Gods of Dura-Europos

From the worship of local Syrian protector gods to Christianity, many different religions flourished in the cosmopolitan crossroads city of Dura-Europos. Jen Baird brings us face to face with the diverse divine through the art of this ancient site.

The carved limestone relief is less than half a metre high. Its surface has become worn over the two millennia since it was made, but traces of the paint which once adorned it remain. Humble in size, perhaps, and faded, but nonetheless the depiction is clear. It is ancient Syria’s greatest goddess: Atargatis. She sits between lions, on her throne, her consort Hadad by her side. This cult relief, as this form of religious sculpture is known, was found in the courtyard of the Temple of Atargatis at the Syrian site of Dura-Europos almost a century ago. Between Atargatis and Hadad is a depiction of a cult standard or semeion, a religious object that recalls Roman military standards but also those of the Assyrians long before, its meaning perhaps deliberately equivocal in a frontier world where many cultures and traditions came into contact. Atargatis and Hadad were among the many gods of Dura-Europos, and the relief gives us a hint of its complex religious world, which is still not fully understood.

Relief of Atargatis and Hadad, from the Temple of Atargatis at Dura-Europos. Limestone, probably 2nd century AD. Size: 41 x 28 x 11.5cm

Overlooking the Euphrates, Dura-Europos was one of Syria’s most extensively excavated and best-known sites. Now it has the sad honour of being one of the sites most devastated by the ongoing Syrian conflict, devastation mostly caused by the looting of antiquities. That looting is known predominately from satellite images, on which the site’s surface resembles a lunar landscape, covered with the craters dug by those illicitly removing artefacts to sell. The destruction of Syrian heritage at Dura-Europos is all the more tragic given the site’s past as a cosmopolitan crossroads, at which a range of different languages and many different religious practices were archaeologically preserved. In the Roman period, the time that is best known from the archaeological evidence, we know of no fewer than 19 different religious buildings, many of which had been built under Arsacid (Parthian) rule in the centuries before. Some religious structures, like the Mithraeum, Synagogue, and Christian building, focused on single deities. Others were home to a range of gods. Together, the evidence for the many gods and goddesses of Dura-Europos, preserved through inscriptions, sculptures, and paintings, give us a sense of the complex cultural and religious interconnections of the Roman era in Syria.

Excavated primarily in the 1920s and 1930s by a joint expedition from Yale and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters, we know Dura-Europos as well as we do because it was never substantially reoccupied after its capture by Sasanians in the mid- 3rd century AD. In a last-ditch and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to hold back the invading Sasanian army, the Roman military built a huge embankment against the interior of the city walls, incidentally preserving many buildings that were in the wall’s shadow. Among those buildings accidentally but incredibly saved by the rampart were a number of religious structures. They included what is perhaps, to this day, the most important find of all from Dura-Europos, and the most unexpected: the 3rd-century wall paintings that decorated the Synagogue. ‘Graven images’ were prohibited in Judaism, yet in the large reception room of a building excavated in 1932 walls decorated with scene after scene from the Hebrew Bible were found, all preserved in vibrant colour, proving that not all early Jewish art was aniconic. A sense of these vivid depictions was captured in painted copies made in the 1930s by artist Herbert Gute.

Herbert Gute, The Wilderness Encampment and the Miraculous Well of Be’er, a copy of a one of the 3rd-century wall paintings from the Synagogue. Gouache on paper on board, 1933-1935. Size: 187.3 x 269.2cm

The Synagogue and, just a few blocks to the south along the city wall, a Christian building were relative latecomers to the pluralistic city, both adapted from private houses into religious buildings in the 3rd century AD. In the Christian building was a baptistery, identified by its preserved baptismal font. This baptistery included paintings of biblical scenes. Excavations found among those scenes, despite their fragmentary nature, what is perhaps the earliest known image of the Virgin Mary – at a well, during the Annunciation. At Dura-Europos, painting on the walls of religious buildings had been normal practice for centuries, with painted fragments found in the most sacred part of many of its temples. In those earlier forms, paintings were not of biblical scenes but more often of the gods to whom the buildings were devoted, and of local families making sacrifices to them, preserving and displaying on the painted plaster of temple walls not only their devotion to their gods, but also their position in their family and their community. Painting religion on to the walls was a local practice and one that was compatible with the needs of Jewish and Christian communities of 3rd-century Dura to make tangible their written and oral stories, and help them to be remembered.

Late in the city’s life, by the 3rd century, Dura-Europos was occupied by a Roman military garrison, who brought new gods with them. Indeed, the site preserved in fragmentary form one of the most important documents for Roman military religion to be preserved from antiquity: the feriale Duranum. Written in Latin on papyrus, it is a religious calendar, listing the official festivals that the army celebrated, including those in which emperors were worshipped; traditional cults from the core of the empire, from Rome and Italy; and festivals such as the Saturnalia. This remarkable calendar shows that the rhythms of daily life – whether military or civilian – were governed by engagement with the divine.

Wall painting of a woman at the well, perhaps the earliest known representation of the Virgin Mary, from baptistery of the Christian building. Paint on plaster, 3rd century AD. Size: 99 x 61cm

The Roman military might have been tied into empire-wide networks, but at Dura-Europos they too took up the practice of painting on the walls of religious buildings. In the north-west corner of the city, one of the preserved paintings from the building known as the Temple of Bel (the chief god of the Syrian city of Palmyra) shows Roman soldiers, led by the tribune Julius Terentius (his name is painted in Latin next to him), making a sacrifice at a thymiaterion (incense burner) to three figures. These are probably three gods of Palmyra: they are identifiable by the pedestals on which they stand and the circular nimbus radiating from each of their heads. We don’t know for certain who these gods are, but they are probably Iarhibol, Aglibol, and Arsu, Palmyrene gods integrated into Roman army religion.

One of the preserved fragments of the papyrus known as the feriale Duranumc.227 AD. The religious calendar was found in the Temple of Azzanathkona, which was adapted for use by the Roman military garrison when they took over the city. Image: Beinecke Library, Yale Papyrus Collection

Beneath this trio, the painting depicts two more gods, the personified gods (Tychai) of the cities of Dura-Europos, on the right, and Palmyra on the left. Each was the protector of their city, as indicated by their crowns made of city walls, and at their feet their precious water sources are personified by swimming figures – for Palmyra, the Eqfa spring, and at the feet of Dura-Europos, the mighty Euphrates river. Beside Terentius, near the centre of the painting, the regimental vexillum (standard) of his cohort, the cohors XX Palmyrenorum, is held up high. Julius Terentius and his men are presented as Roman soldiers in their clothing, but they give a sacrifice to the gods of their home city, Palmyra, and that sacrifice is depicted in a local painted form recognisable from other religious buildings at Dura-Europos.

Julius Terentius and the men of the 20th Palmyrene Cohort performing a sacrifice, from the Temple of Bel. Paint on plaster, 3rd century AD. Size: 107 x 165 x 10.2cm

While the Roman military brought some new traditions and adapted some old ones, there were deities who persisted at Dura-Europos from some of its earliest periods until its end. The most common deity found in the sculptures from Dura-Europos is the one we usually know as Heracles, recognisable from his club and lionskin, and his heroic nudity. None of the examples of this figure from Dura-Europos, however, have inscriptions (nor do similar depictions at contemporary sites in the Near East, such as Palmyra or Hatra). His attributes might actually be those of the Mesopotamian god Nergal, or another protectivity deity of the Near East, or perhaps the figure depicted is a hybrid of these. In any case, he was popular at Dura-Europos, found in temples and private homes, and perhaps his popularity was precisely because he could be interpreted in different ways by different people.

 Relief of Heracles, from House G3-M4. Limestone, 1st century AD. Size: 28.6 x 19.7 x 8.9cm

Another sculpted relief shows a male figure mounted on a camel. No inscription identifies the god, but from his attributes we see that he is probably Arsu, the armed Arab god of the steppe, protector of caravans. He stands before an altar of a type often found in the temples of Dura-Europos and, across the Syrian steppe, at Palmyra as well. Behind him, a crescent moon alludes to his role as ruler of the evening star, and the rosette beside him, his divinity. The relief was found in the Temple of Adonis, a building which took its name from another one of the gods who was worshipped in it. We know this attribution from an inscription on an altar dedicated to Adonis, and another that mentions rites to him being performed (Atargatis and Apollo are mentioned on other texts from the same building). Like Heracles, Adonis was a god with a Greek name but a much more complicated origin: adon means ‘Lord’ in Aramaic, and his character was known from earlier Mesopotamian myth. From the same building, a fragmentary relief of a goddess was found. She too is enigmatic, but this is probably another image of Atargatis, with her sacred doves to either side, who in her role as protectress of the city wears a mural crown like the Tychai of the Terentius painting.

Head of Atargatis or Tyche with doves, from Temple of Adonis. Limestone, probably 1st century AD. Size: 13 x 25.5 x 5cm

The Temple of Adonis (which held images of Atargatis and Arsu as well) was, like others at Dura-Europos, a courtyard structure, filling part of a city block. Surrounding the courtyard was a series of rooms where groups of people could gather. On one side was the focal point, a pronaos and naos, the most sacred part of the building. The rooms around the courtyard sometimes show that the site’s temples held not only a range of gods, but also a range of worshippers; inscriptions from some rooms record their dedication by groups of people.

Arsu riding a camel, relief from the Temple of Adonis. Limestone, probably 2nd century AD. Size: 33 x 44.5 x 7cm

As we have seen with the Palmyrene gods and other figures, some deities attested at Dura-Europos were the gods of other places. From the south-west corner of the site we know of another such god. On a limestone relief, a god stands tall atop a pair of griffins, while a male figure, lower down, makes a sacrifice to him. The Greek inscription tells us the dedicant is Adadiabos and the god is Aphlad, the god of a place called Anath of the Euphrates (120km south of Dura-Europos). This relief is a good example of the complex visual and ritual world that produced it. Adadiabos wears the conical priest’s hat of the Middle Euphrates region, and the god wears a cuirass of a Hellenistic armed god, the trousers typical of the Parthians, and a polos on his head like those of Syrian deities. The image of the thymiaterion on to which Adadiabos sprinkles incense is like that in Terentius’s sacrifice scene. This is one of many shared practices depicted in spaces dedicated to different gods at Dura-Europos, even when the people making sacrifices, perhaps like Adadiabos, were likewise from other places.

Field photograph of the relief of Aphlad, now in the National Museum, Damascus, c.AD 54.
Image: photograph from Dura Europos Archive, Yale University Art Gallery

Some religious buildings at Dura-Europos seem to have been under the patronage of – and were perhaps even exclusively used by – particular elite families at the site. One of the oldest temples in the city was that of Zeus Megistos (the Greatest). An inscription records the dedication of part of the building by one Seluekos. Seluekos was the strategos and epistates (chief magistrate) of the city, and a member of one of a small number of aristocratic families who controlled such positions. Most of the sculptures known from Dura-Europos were reliefs, but from the temple of Zeus Megistos, a life-size head sculpted in the round was excavated; this is probably the head of the main statue of Zeus Megistos himself.

Head of deity wearing a polos, probably Zeus Megistos. From the naos of the Temple of Zeus Megistos. Limestone, c.AD 160-169. Size: 39.69 x 26 x 21cm

At Dura-Europos, many of the religious buildings that we know archaeologically were physically close, and would have been known to each other. And yet, in this small city, there is no sense of religious enclaves, with the private housing having many shared features across the city. That is to say, religious divisions did not necessarily translate into other types of divisions. While scholars remain unsure on whether or to what extent the different cults of the city competed with each other, from the material remains we can be sure that they shared many things, including the form of their buildings and the decoration of religious spaces. This colourful place of many gods has been now been destroyed again – we will never know how many of its gods have been lost forever as a result.


Further information

  • Jen Baird is the author of Dura-Europos, published by Bloomsbury in 2018 (ISBN 978-1472530875; £24.99)
  • A selection of finds from Dura-Europos are on display at the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut: https://artgallery.yale.edu.
  • The author thanks Lisa Brody, Associate Curator of Ancient Art at Yale University Art Gallery.
All images:  Yale University Art Gallery, unless otherwise stated