The Diaspora Synagogues
Diaspora is a Greek word meaning "dispersion," and the Diaspora refers to the period in which
Jews, whether by force or by choice, began to live outside their Homeland. By the end of the
first century BCE, most Jews lived in Diaspora, some forming communities in large urban centers.
The synagogue, a word meaning "congregation," would soon become their communal gathering place.
For Jews the Temple in Jerusalem was their central institution, and the presence of synagogues
throughout the Homeland and larger Mediterranean world was no substitution for it. Only after
the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE did the synagogue assume a more prominent role in Jewish
society. In some sense, the synagogue became a replacement for the lost Temple. A synagogue could
provide a building for religious services, the reading of the Torah, a place of assembly and an
educational center. Above all, a synagogue could help an immigrant community preserve and nourish
its cultural identity.
The synagogue provided all these benefits for the Diaspora Jews, a population that stretched from
the town of Dura (on the banks of the Euphrates, to the town of Stobi (in
modern Macedonia) and even to Ostia.
Painted with scenes from the Hebrew Scriptures, the west wall of the Synagogue at Dura-Europos also shows evidence of
a niche used for housing the Torah. This Synagogue, located in Syria, is one of the six Diaspora synagogues that has
been extensively excavated and studied. It was converted from a small private residence to a synagogue in the second
century CE, and its paintings date to the third century CE. The photograph appears as color plate number one in The
Early Christian and Byzantine World by Jean Lassus (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967).
In fact, a total of six Diaspora synagogues have been extensively studied and excavated. The wide-ranging
location of these synagogues highlights the variety of their architecture and diversity with which Jews responded
to living in a different city. Some arose from local,private houses; one, from a Roman imperial bath complex.
In each case, local customs and materials played an important factor in the creation of these worship centers.
|The location of Six Diaspora Synagogues
|The island of Delos
The above synagogue at Sardis in Turkey has an entrance courtyard with columns and a fountain basin in the
center. Unlike the modest size of the synagogue at Dura-Europos, the monumental nature and elaborate
decoration of this Diaspora Synagogue stems, in part, from the fact that it was a converted not from a
private residence but from a Roman imperial bath and gymnasium complex. Photo courtesy of
, under the terms of their "permission to use" page.
In spite of these geographical differences, the Diaspora synagogues share several features,such as an entrance
area with a water basin or fountain, a main hall, and a niche to preserve copies of the Torah.
These architectural similarities are evidence of the common bond that Jewish communities shared
across time and place.
Thus, whether we look at how these synagogues differ or how they are the same, a study of the architecture is a
study of the social development of the religious community. Of all the Diaspora synagogues mentioned above,
the building at Ostia-from an architectural and archaeological perspective-is the least well-known.
Above stands a small courtyard with four columns near the entrance to the synagogue complex; the room at the far end of
the photograph is the hall, where the Torah Niche was found. Although Diaspora synagogues cannot be dated on their
similarity to one another, the presence of a courtyard, a main hall and a Torah Niche demonstrates that the Jewish
community at Ostia shared some of the same building needs as other Diaspora communities.