Ruins From Ancient Syrian Synagogue Put on Display in Israel After 63-year Delay

An archaeological exhibit slated to open on Mount Scopus in 1948 finally kicked off last month with a display of tiles from the famed Dura Europos synagogue.

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
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Painted tiles from an impressive ancient synagogue in Syria, along with other archaeological artifacts, went on display on Mount Scopus last month - after a 63-year delay.

The exhibits were originally intended to be shown to the public on Mount Scopus in 1948, but the outbreak of the War of Independence froze plans to open the nearly-completed museum built there. The exhibits were placed in drawers for decades and became accessible to the public only last month.

A wall painting from the famed Dura Europos synagogue of Syria.Credit: Gabi Laron, Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University

Among the artifacts are tiles from the ancient synagogue discovered in the city of Dura Europos, which is located in the Syrian desert above the banks of the Euphrates. To this day - about 80 years after its discovery - this 3rd century synagogue is considered one of the most complete and impressive examples of Jewish religious structures from that period.

One of the prominent characteristics of the building, a reconstruction of which is now displayed in the National Museum in Damascus, is beautiful paintings depicting scenes from the Bible, on its walls and ceiling. The Yale University delegation that studied the site in 1932 invited Eliezer Sukenik to visit the site and to join in the publication of the findings of the dig. Sukenik, one of the first Jewish Israeli archaeologists (his son and successor was Yigael Yadin ), immediately accepted.

About a month after the invitation, Sukenik traveled by train to Damascus and from there to the excavation site. He returned with considerable bounty thanks to the generosity of his colleagues from Yale: three painted tiles that had adorned the ceiling of the synagogue.

The painted tiles from Dura Europos were meant to be one of the important exhibits in the project initiated by Sukenik: a museum that would display items related to the history of the Jewish people, on the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus. The plan to build the museum, which was called the Museum for Jewish Antiquities, came up shortly before the synagogue in Dura Europos was discovered in 1932. Sukenik and his colleagues, including Nahman Avigad, wanted to collect items related to the history of the Jewish people in ancient times and to display them to the public.

The museum was designed by architects Carl Rubin and Itzhak Yavetz, as part of a master plan for the campus, which was designed by German Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn. The building was dedicated in 1941. Afterwards they began to fill it with items, but the museum never opened. Two months before the scheduled opening date, the battles of the War of Independence erupted and the building on Mount Scopus was evacuated.

When the faculty of the Hebrew University returned to Mount Scopus after its recapture in 1967, the archaeological artifacts returned as well. But the building that had been designated for the museum - the sign was placed on the gate of the building 70 years ago - housed the offices of the Archaeological Institute and its collections room. The findings remained in drawers and were used by archaeologists and students. Only recently did Daphna Tsoran, the acting curator of the collections room, begin to display the findings to the public.

Since June one can see the ceiling tiles from Dura Europos and other fascinating finds at an exhibition on the Mount Scopus campus, in the original building where they were supposed to be displayed 63 years ago.

Finding the items was like detective work, says Tsoran. Along the way she learned much about the nature of early archaeological research in Israel. Some of the findings, as revealed by letters and diary entries that Tsoran found in the archives, were uncovered by hikers, who reported the discovery to scholars.

Tsoran also discovered that while Sukenik and his colleagues were thought to be interested only in finds connected to Israelis or Jews, they in fact made great efforts to bring items to the museum from all over the ancient East. In the National Museum in Beirut, for example, there is a sarcophagus of one of the kings of the Phoenician coastal city Byblos (today Jubail ) with a Phoenician inscription. Sukenik ordered a copy of the inscription that was engraved on the sarcophagus. He turned to the Solel Boneh construction company, which had a branch in Beirut during the Mandate period, to bring the inscription to Jerusalem. The company agreed and loaded the copy onto a truck that was headed for Israel. Now the inscription can also be viewed on Mount Scopus.