Dura-Europos, Middle Persian Graffiti and the Sasanians

The remains of the once vibrant city of Dura-Europos stand on the banks of the Euphrates in modern day Syria. The city was established by the Seleucids in 303 BCE and during the reign of Mithradates II the city fell into the hands of the Arsacids. Avidius Cassius captured the city and brought it into the Roman orbit, where Dura acted as a defensive frontier city. Then the Sasanians conquered the city in 256 CE. Its population was deported along with others from other frontier towns during the campaign of Shapur I (240-270 CE).

The Persians left a series graffiti at the synagogue, twelve to be exact (MacKenzie, “Dura Inscriptions” EI.” Some of these inscriptions and the chosen location should give us pause about the relation between the Jews and Sasanians and how the Biblical stories, specifically those related to the Achaemenids may have been received by the Sasanian Persians. There are doubts whether the Sasanians knew about the Achaemenids, but this encounter could have transmitted the story of the Achaemenid kings to at least a few late antique Persians.

The readings for the Middle Persian inscriptions could be improved and because of their location at the synagogue are very important. For example an interesting inscription (no. 44, plate xliv3 in B. Geiger, “The Middle Iranian Texts,” in C. H. Kraeling, The Synagogue, The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report 8/1, New Haven, Conn., 1956, pp. 283-317) on the right leg of Haman who is on his horse mentions that Hormizd the scribe (hormizd dibīr) came to the synagogue. Giger who worked on the graffito does not make out what dibīrē ī zahmē ud ēn zandakē ī yahūdān exactly mean as he translated this line as: “the scribe of the building and this zandak of the Jews.” I would prefer and suggest the reading dibīrē ī dahm ud ēn zandakē ī jahūdān meaning “the pious scribe and this district of the Jews.” The action is taken by the scribe is shown in the next line where Giger reads: ō ēn patrastakē ī bay ī bayān ī yahūdān āmat hēnd “his edifice of the God of the Gods of the Jews came.” I prefer and suggest the reading: ō ēn parastakē ī bay ī bāyān ī jāhūdān āmad-hēnd “came to this place of worship of the God of Gods of the Jews.” These are some of the corrections that could be made to these graffiti.

I would like to provide the reading of a graffito which has been attempted by several scholars (Giger no. 42, plate xliv, i):

māh frawardīn abar

sāl 15 ud rōz rašnū

ka yazdān-tahm-farranbay

dibīr ī dahmē ō

ēn xānag u-š ēn nigār


“In the month of Frawardīn, on

year 15 and the day of Rašn

when Yazdān-tahm-farrnbay,

the pious scribe, came to

this building, and he liked

this drawing”