Department of Antiquities, Syria

Knife in hand, Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac in a scene on the upper right portion of the Torah niche of the third-century A.D. synagogue at Dura Europos, in modern Syria. A third person, thought by many scholars to represent Abraham’s grieving wife Sarah, stands in a tent above—even though in the biblical text Sarah is not mentioned in connection with the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22).

In the mid-third century, Dura Europos was a small Roman garrison town with a multi-ethnic population, including a Christian community. When the synagogue of the town’s small Jewish community was excavated in 1932, one wall was found covered with paintings illustrating scores of scenes from the Bible—some of the earliest depictions of biblical scenes ever painted.

Surprisingly, the paintings in the Dura synagogue were preserved by war. In 255 A.D., when Persian Sasanians besieged the city, the Romans back-filled the synagogue’s western wall to buttress the city’s perimeter defenses, thus saving it for posterity. This is a rare recent photograph of the Torah niche as displayed in the Damascus Museum, supplied by the Syrian Department of Antiquities.