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OSMAP Home > Introduction to Ostia Antica > History of the Synagogue Site > Diaspora Judaism

Diaspora Judaism and 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 B.C.E., 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 C.E. 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 scenes on the west wall of the Synagogue at Dura-Europos.

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 C.E., and its paintings date to the third century C.E. 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
Priene, Turkey
Sardis, Turkey
Dura, Syria
Stobi, Macedonia
Ostia, Italy

Sardis synagogue forecourt

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
www.holylandphotos.org, under the terms of their "permission to use" page.

In spite of these geographical differences, the Diaspora synagogues often 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.

Torah niche found at the Ostia Synagogue.

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.

Small courtyard near the entrance of the synagogue complex

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.

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UPDATED 8.27.2009 | DRB