Dura Europos

When you tell your daughters that you collect images of Jonah and they send you one from a Basilica

Pretty cool kids…

It’s always been my conjecture that the Dura Europos Baptistry had images of Jonah present as a representation of the 3-day Resurrection event in a Jewish/Chritian context. There were depictions of Adam and Eve in the Baptistry area (along with Jesus as the Good Shepherd as well as other common representations from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in places such as the Catacombs in Rome).

Here’s an image of the Dura Baptistry from the original printing of Dura Europos and Its Art by Prof. M. Rostovtzeff (1938, Oxford Press)… one of my favorite books and possessions:

The top register includes a depiction of Jesus telling the disabled person by the Bethesda Pool to grab their cot and get up and walk off (John 5). It’s a terrific passage.

The amazing (and frustrating thing) is that the register literally flows the pool into a depiction of Jesus walking on water on the Sea of Galilee and getting Peter to hop out of the boat to walk towards him (Mark 6, Matthew 14, and John 6)… which doesn’t turn out well for Peter. The depiction here actually shows Peter sinking in the waves!

Here are the two panels we have with the earliest depictions of Jesus that we know of …

Dura Europos Baptistry Depictions of Jesus Healing the Paralytic and Walking on Water

While a grad student at Yale, I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of years working at the incredible Yale Art Gallery with Prof. Susan Matheson and the talented staff there. One of my “jobs” (it was more like dream assignments) was working in the basement to catalog the Dura Europos collection with digital photography. I got to see this fresco on a pretty regular basis and we became good pals. If I knew then what I know now…

However, the frustrating part is that the water continues to flow to the next register… which has been lost to history after the sack of the (then) Roman Dura Europos in 256-257 CE by Sassanians and subsequent abandonment of the fort / town and eventual disappearance into history before the complete looting of the site by ISIS over the last decade. It’s a sad tale and I had always hoped to travel to Dura and participate in a dig where we’d uncover the other pieces of the top register in the Baptistry that would almost certainly have included Jonah being regurgitated from the fish and therefore seal my case about Jewish-Christianity extending well into the 3rd and 4th centuries. Alas.

Again, Jonah shows up quite often in early Christian artwork and imagery as a signifier of the Resurrection (the Catacombs especially), but I always wanted to see what those genius artists who designed the Dura Europos Baptistry did with the rest of the panels and the water theme as they perched between the edge of the desert and overlooking the Euphrates River.

Show and Tell: Handling Art at the Wurtele Center

My time with the incredible finds from Dura Europos at the Yale University Art Gallery are some of my fondest memories…

Walking alongside the shelves, one can step from intricate African sculptures to ancient Greek vases to Chinese porcelain to a collection of Picasso ceramics. Opposite the entrance and behind glass display cases are a series of white, metal sliding shelves. They are filled with, among other things, wooden staffs, tea cups and wall fragments excavated from Dura-Europos, Syria.

Source: Show and Tell: Handling Art at the Wurtele Center

Destroying Dura Europos

A Greek settlement on the Euphrates not far from Syria’s border with Iraq, Dura-Europos later became one of Rome’s easternmost outposts. It housed the world’s oldest known Christian church, a beautifully decorated synagogue, and many other temples and Roman-era buildings. Satellite imagery shows a cratered landscape inside the city’s mud-brick walls, evidence of widespread destruction by looters.

Source: Here Are the Ancient Sites ISIS Has Damaged and Destroyed

One of my biggest regrets in life is not making more of an effort to actually visit the site of Dura Europos (and Nimrud) before this bleak period in the area’s history. I’ll always have my memories from working with Yale’s collection of material from Dura, and my books, my journal articles, and my media clippings… but to have been there before ISIS…

carpe diem

Dura Europos Looting and Devastation Update


“There is a complete and massive change to this site,” Wolfinbarger says, comparing the pre-war images to those collected in 2014 of the renowned archaeological treasure.

British soldiers discovered Dura Europus in the 1920s. They hit on the wall of the ancient city while digging a trench during World War I. Excavation revealed a provincial Roman town founded in 300 B.C.

Brian Daniels, director of research at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center in Philadelphia, describes Dura Europos as “a snapshot in time.”

“It has the oldest synagogue known in the world and it also has one of the oldest house church known in the world,” Daniels says. “The level of looting and devastation that’s happened to Dura Europus is heart-breaking.”

via Via Satellite, Tracking The Plunder Of Middle East Cultural History : Parallels : NPR.

Dura Europos as a “Moonscape of Craters”

More sadness regarding ISIS and looting at Dura Europos in Syria…

“I am fearful that there will be mass looting as in Syria,” said Katharyn Hanson, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Centre and a specialist in Mesopotamian archaeology, who is visiting Erbil. She says that Nineveh, Nimrud and other cities of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which once stretched from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, will “become like Dura-Europos on the Euphrates, a moonscape of craters [from looters pits].” Dura-Europos is a Hellenistic city whose site used to be known as “the Pompeii of the Syrian desert”.

via Iraq: Isis militants pledge to destroy remaining archaeological treasures in Nimrud – Middle East – World – The Independent.

Dura Europos and Its Art

Just received my 1938 first edition copy of M. Rostovtzeff’s Dura Europos And Its Art today. I’ve now been able to secure every first edition of books about Dura (outside of the Final Reports, which I’m working on).

Good day. 

Why We Should Care About Archaeological Destruction

This is terrible…

The Islamic State group released a video on Thursday showing militants using sledgehammers to smash ancient artifacts in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, describing them as idols that must be removed, according to the Associated Press.

The destructions are part of a campaign by Islamic State, who have destroyed a number of shrines — including Muslim holy sites — in order to eliminate what they view as heresy.

via Islamic State Video Shows Militants Destroying Museum Artifacts in Iraq – Dispatch – WSJ.

While the world was watching the Academy Awards ceremony, the people of Mosul were watching a different show. They were horrified to see ISIS members burn the Mosul public library. Among the many thousands of books it housed, more than 8,000 rare old books and manuscripts were burned.

via ISIS Burns 8000 Rare Books and Manuscripts in Mosul – Yahoo! Finance

Let’s not forget that people of many faiths (ancient and modern) have used the defacement or destruction of art or cultural items as a way to “wipe the slate clean” of previous heresies. From Hatsheput to Josiah pulling down the high places in Israel to the burning of books, these tactics are power plays designed to show that the deity or deities are on one’s side in a presumed theo-political battle.

Lost in the fear that ISIS / ISIL / IS is imminently planning to attack the US is the cultural damage this collection of people are doing to museums and sites in Syria (Damascus, Antioch, Palmyra, Dura Europos) and northern Iraq (Mosul / Nineveh).

Specifically for the stories linked above, the modern city of Mosul sites very near Nineveh, the historical capital of the Assyrian Empire, at its height in the 9th-7th centuries BCE. Believe it or not, Assyrian artifacts caused quite a rage in the late 1800’s after Sir Henry Austen Layard’s discovery of Assyrian palaces in the 1850’s.

These artifacts directly impacted the development of the missionary movement as northeastern universities used these impressive pieces of art as proof of God’s providence (as the folks in Jerusalem were saved from Sennacherib’s invasion by God’s hand according to the book of Kings… the folks in the Northern Kingdom of Israel as well as Lachish were less fortunate).

While doing graduate studies at Yale, I somehow lucked into a dream job at the Yale Art Gallery. I was so fascinated by the Assyrian antiquities there and the story of why Yale, Harvard, Amherst, Williams etc were so passionate about securing Assyrian pieces for their own collections in the 1800’s that I wrote a book about it:

This accompanying text to the Yale University Art Gallery’s famed Assyrian reliefs details the 19th-century American frenzy for reliefs taken from Assurnasirpal II’s magnificent palace in Kalhu near the Tigris River. The discovery of the palace by the British in 1845 captured the Victorian public’s imagination, leading to the discovery of other architectural sites and the deciphering of the Assyrian language. Soon, American missionaries sought to procure artifacts for their alma maters, most often coveting reliefs that were religious in content. William Frederic Williams was one such missionary and former Yale faculty member. He, along with Yale Medical School graduate Henry Lobel, secured six slabs from Assurnasirpal’s palace, which were divided up between Yale, Amherst, and Union Seminary in Utica. Harrelson analyzes at length the two reliefs obtained by Yale. He touches on the technical aspects of the materials as well as the reliefs’ religious iconography, situating them within the palace as a whole.

via Asia Has Claims Upon New England by Sam Harrelson, Yale University Art Gallery

Along with the atrocities being done by groups such as IS to other humans, we should care about the destruction of irreplaceable pieces of world history whenever it happens. For those of us with a more jingoist mindset, we should especially care when these cultural pieces are directly tied to our own history and majority religion.

William F. Williams wrote back to his benefactors at Yale from the city of Mosul in the 1850’s that, “Asia has claims upon New England.” Perhaps that has never been more true in the modern context.

Thomas and I will definitely discuss this on the next Thinking Religion, so give that a listen if you’re interested.

I pray for peace.

Yale’s Religious Treasures

My masters degree in religion is from Yale, and it’s great to see the religious treasures there highlighted. However, I can’t believe the Dura Europos baptistry (from the earliest house church we’ve recovered and one of the first depictions of Jesus we have) didn’t make the list (the Mithraeum did, though… which is also spectacular).

Nevertheless, good read and makes me miss my days working in the Yale Art Gallery as a grad assistant…

In reality, this supposed bastion of elite godless education is teeming with people studying religion, teaching religion, and doing religion. Yale has a divinity school with a Christian identity, albeit a non-denominational one that welcomes students of other religions and no religions. It has two large chapels, the famed Battell Chapel on the undergraduate campus and the graceful Marquand Chapel at the divinity quadrangle. And Yale, a place that started out as a training ground for Congregationalist ministers (whose students included none other than Jonathan Edwards) retains to this day a dazzling array of religious treasures and relics, all publicly available.

via 15 Religion Treasures at Yale | Tom Krattenmaker.

More on Dura Europos Looting

The first image is the site of Dura Europos from June 28 2012 and the second image is from April 2 2014 (notice how many looting holes there are now):


Dura Europos is located right near the border of Syria and Iraq on the Euphrates and is an archaeological record of the strife this area has faced for millenia. The little fort town only existed as a functioning place for about 500 years, but was controlled by the Macedonians, Persians, Parthians, and Romans before finally being destroyed and left for us to recover by the Sassanians around 256 CE. We’ve discovered incredible records of our shared human culture such as the earliest depictions of Jesus, a full Mithraeum, a rather intact Roman citadel, and a “painted” Jewish synagogue complete with depictions of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament narratives that still cause wonderment from scholars.

It’s sad that we’re not hearing more about this cultural loss.

From the US State Department regarding looting at Dura Europos and many similar (very important) archaeological sites in Syria…

This unique Classical-period site, founded in the 3rd century BC and occupied until the 3rd century AD, demonstrates the diversity of the ancient Middle East. One of the world’s earliest churches was discovered here, as was one of the oldest preserved synagogues and numerous temples devoted to polytheistic deities. This important site of approximately 150 acres (60 hectares) is now covered by looters’ pits.

via Imagery of Archaeological Site Looting | Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Dura Europos Looting

The “holes” in the inset picture are looting holes from the area near the main agora at Dura Europos. Sadly, we haven’t properly excavated much of that area.

This literally breaks my heart given that we’ve properly excavated such a small amount of Dura Europos and we’ve learned so much about Judaism, early Christianity, and a plethora of other 3rd century religions flourishing under Roman rule in Syria…

We need to act rapidly against a situation that is becoming noticeably worse. In fact we are faced by a volcano in permanent eruption with a mixture of hate and horror. It is breaking down Syrian society and its values through the violent and systematic destruction of its heritage. The situation is comparable to a boiling crater of lava. Around this volcano, archaeological heritage is suffering eruptive blasts, with the population hovering between expectation, anguish and hope.

via Syrian Archaeology, ‘Scale of the Scandal’ | The ASOR Blog.

History and our cultural heritage matters.

Edge of Empires at Dura Europos

2014-06-21 18.56.35 2014-06-21 18.56.45 2014-06-21 18.57.11

Finally got my copy of Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews, and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos.

It’s a fascinating and beautiful book (I actually took some of the photos in there during my time at Yale University Art Gallery when I worked on digitizing our amazing Dura Europos collection). I could literally go on and on about Dura (ask my wife), but here’s the Amazon description:

Strategically located high above the Euphrates River between Syria and Mesopotamia, the city of Dura-Europos was founded around 300 BCE by one of the Macedonian generals who succeeded Alexander the Great. Within a century, the Near Eastern Parthians overtook and controlled the city until the Roman emperor Lucius Verus captured it in 164 CE. Dura-Europos then thrived as a critical stronghold along the Roman imperial frontier until 256 CE, when the Sasanian Persians destroyed it. By the time of its demise, Dura-Europos was a city positioned at the commercial, political, and cultural intersections of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds. Edge of Empires vividly illustrates the international and pluralistic character of Dura-Europos, highlighting objects that demonstrate the coexistence of multiple religions such as polytheistic cults, Judaism, and Christianity; the great variety of languages spoken by its population; and its role as an international military garrison.

Dura is like an old friend that teaches me new things all these years later.

Now I finally need to get duraeuropos.org off the ground 🙂

Links and the Persistance of Memories

Doc Searls riffing off of Dave Winer’s post about the history of podcasts here…

Doc Searls Weblog · Why durable links matter: “We can find these historic details because links have at least a provisional permanence to them. They are, literally, paths to locations. Thanks to those, we can document the history we make, and learn from it as well.”

As usual, Searls says some incredibly important things (and gives some great links such as Anil Dash’s The Web We Lost) in a small space.

However, as a middle school teacher I constantly try to reinforce the idea of not just “portfolio spaces” (each of our middle schoolers has a blog that they get to design, set up, create etc) and why links on blogs and personal spaces are so important to the health of the web. It’s a difficult concept for anyone to understand. Why worry about links to things when we have Google for information, Facebook for social, Instagram for pictures and Spotify/YouTube for music?

Doc points out the best reason possible… permanence. The “HT” part of HTML and HTTP are important signals as to how and why the web exists. To be able to look back and learn or reflect on information that we create as we encounter this new digital landscape is so important.

For example, I didn’t know Allen Stern personally but he was a rather important figure when I started to get involved in blogging and what has become the social web. His blog CenterNetworks was a constant source of both information and traffic for my own marketing blog (CostPerNews) at the time. I was saddened to learn of his death late last night and went on a trip down memory lane to see what I could find from my own linking to Allen. Sadly, most of it has eroded by my own actions over time. I’ve started blogs and either sold them or abandoned them. I had to rely on the wonderful Archive.org WayBackMachine. However, I wish I still had that content that I produced by linking to his work or thinking on what he thought up first.

Instead, I’ve posted in walled gardens that cease to exist or are inaccessible to the outside web. I’m more guilty than anyone for relying on services like Twitter or Facebook to deliver content when I should be posting info, ideas, pictures etc on this space and then letting those services aggregate as needed.

So, learn from my mistakes.

Create your own blog. Live on that blog and let other services slurp your content in as you intend.

Create a real and lasting digital footprint.

Leave a legacy so that your kids’ kids can read your portfolio or your blog just as they can read the paper versions (if you please).

Create a healthier web.

R.I.P. Allen.

Dura Europos and Me

Dura Europos

Thanks to Evernote, I’ve been able to digitize most of the notebooks I’ve written on Dura Europos. I know take digital notes on the small city, but thumbing back through my Moleskine notebooks full of clippings and hand written notes makes me feel a bit like Indiana Jones with his father’s collected notebooks on the Holy Grail.

In many ways, Dura is like my holy grail.

I started studying the city while working as a curatorial assistant to Susan Matthews at the Yale Art Gallery while doing my graduate studies there in ancient religious art. In fact, my real first job was to spend time with the thousands of objects that Yale has in its warehouses and the gallery basement and lovingly “digitize” Yale’s collection of slides, objects and paintings from its involvement with the excavation of Dura Europos in the 1930’s. It was magical.

I still go back to those dark and stuffed basements and warehouses full of artifacts, beads, paintings, statues, detritus and debris in my mind and realize what a chance Prof Matheson allowed me to fall in love with a place.

Ten years later, I still want to go:

Dura-Europos, a Melting Pot at the Intersection of Empires – NYTimes.com: “As a city of extraordinary cultural diversity,’ said Jennifer Y. Chi, an archaeologist and the exhibition’s chief curator, ‘Dura-Europos has great resonance for the modern world, where multiculturalism shapes the very nature and quality of daily life.”

Here’s a nice interactive site on Dura that the Yale Art Gallery has put together with maps, images and descriptions. I highly recommend checking it out.

I would share my Evernote notebook with you all… but would Dr Henry Jones Sr share his holy grail notebook? Nah.

Of Pig Bones and Pillars: Why Josiah Matters

As much as I’m drawn to Dura Europos, the interesting convergence of narrative interpretation, post-colonial criticism and historical authenticities surrounding the study of 7th and 6th century Judah as played out in the Deuteronomistic “History” of Joshua thru II Kings (and Jeremiah and parts of Hosea, Genesis, etc) is too fascinating to avoid.

I really do uphold the position that Hezekiah and Josiah (especially Josiah) are the main characters of the OT (from a narrative point of view) and all the actions, theologies, histories, and imaginings of creation can (I would say should, but that’s my own reading) be read through a Josianic lens.

Questions of historicity, royal theologies, centralization of politics and the worship of YHWH, cultural hegemony… it’s all in the Deuteronomistic History.

Fun, and incredibly important, stuff to ponder for us as we move out of a world dominated by the ideas of nationalism into something very different where cultural theologies will be as, if not more, important than historic realities.

It would appear that following the destruction of Philistine Gath, and the apparent existence of a political “vacuum” in part of the region of the late kingdom of Gath, the kingdom of Judah, perhaps under Hezekiah, takes over parts of the lands of the former kingdom of Gath, including the city of Gath itself.

What is interesting though, is the fact that despite the clear change in ceramics, when we analyzed the animal bones from the 8th cent. BCE level, there still was a lot of pig bones – very untypical of the Judean sites. This may very well indicate that while the political control, and cultural affiliation of the site moved towards Judah, at least some of the original “Philistine” population remained on site and sustained their traditional dietary habits.

link: A Judean “pillar figurine” from Gath « The Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavations Official (and Unofficial) Weblog

Long Term v. Short Term


Welcome guest blogger, Sam Harrelson. I recently shared this article with him about a scholarly journal that is going to begin requiring its authors to post a summary of their research to the online encyclopdia, Wikipedia, an interesting idea, indeed. I then shared with him this response by Jim West, who vehemently disagrees with this new wiki advice. Below is Sam’s well thought out response.

I never thought I would say this, but as I get older, I am rapidly (ironically enough) becoming aware in how much more valuable a “long term” perspective is for the academy (and all things).

Growing up, I could never have dreamed of something like the internet. That’s a lie, actually I could. However, growing up in the Tatooine academic wasteland of Mullins with its pathetic town library and my set of 1988 World Book Encyclopedias, I always wondered how much more I could have learned had I had access to a major library. I was a complete dork. When I heard about the “internet” in the early 90’s, I was immediately taken with the idea of being able to read and share information from anywhere, and be connected to scholars and journals and ideas from anywhere at anytime. When the World Wide Web first launched to the public in 1993, I was there. It was amazing. Still amazes me. Information overload quickly took over my brain. Still does, unfortunately.

However, I’m realizing that as fortunate collections of cooled energy, there is something magical to focusing on ideas rather than personalities. As I learn more and live more, I’m beginning to realize that the nature of the web, and our always-on culture in general, emphasizes personality and personal brand building over ideas or attempts at best describing the state of things. Call me platonic, but I don’t see this as a healthy development of our society. Improving ideas or theories, even through small incremental steps, should be the focus as our lives as scholars, not necessarily worrying about spreading our ideas to people that don’t care through social media.

That’s elitist, but I’m beginning to realize that contributing a few small atomic glimpses of understanding about Dura Europos towards the wider collection of human knowledge is a much more worthy way to spend the time that these cooled pieces of energy which make me up have left together in this state compared to building up a personal brand. All is vanity.

Wikipedia is interesting because it doesn’t necessarily cling to the notions of “social media” that emphasize personality. It’s difficult to tell who is editing articles, etc unless you know how to look up that information. So, I do think that it’s viable on that front. However, the idea of it being a “commons” area where anyone can add in information (even if it will be quickly edited out) without peer review lends the entire platform to better discussing Britney Spear’s latest album rather than the mysteries of human existential phenomenology. Peer review helps to enforce this notion of “long term developments of ideas” over the cult of the personality (which, as a footnote… we are seeing creep into scholarship with the Bart Ehrman, Crossan and Elaine Pagels mentality of publishing for Barnes and Noble rather than publishing for humanity in a timeless nature).

So as much as I enjoy Twitter and blogging and Facebook, etc… I’m beginning to take a real hard look at my own contributions to this culture. Even my Blackberry is a tool of that devil. I’m not going to run and get thee to a nunnery, but I am going to start focusing much more on the long term and platonic nature of ideas in my studies over a silly egotistic notion of personal brand building.

I’m still that little boy in Mullins who wants to know more. Now I just need to realize that knowing more bears the responsibility of having to contribute to the collected wisdom of humanity rather than becoming a star theologian or a web celebrity.

Sam Harrelson

To read more of Sam’s musings check out his blog.

Street Art as Societal Lens

(Gaia, NYC, 2008)

One of the things that is on my “to do before I die” list is flesh out a book on the history of graffito in terms of how it reflects on social conditions. Having been to Greece and Italy and exploring a number of the sites in and around Rome, Athens, Corinth, Pompeii, etc, the “writings on the wall” there tell an amazing story that often isn’t presented in the history books.

(The Alexamanos Graffito, Rome ca 200 CE)

And my own interest in Dura Europos (will be updating that place much more frequently soon) feeds into this obsession with graffiti as well. Much of what we know about Dura comes from the large amount of graffito spread across the city since many of the main buildings and their art were either destroyed when the city was sacked in 256 CE or deteriorated due to the building materials.

(Dura Europos Graffito Transcription)

All that to say, check out this great post of 40 contemporary street artists from around the world that you should know about. There are a number of things we can learn about our own selves and societies by looking to these artists…

Streetsy: 40+ Streetartists You Should Know Besides Banksy