06 May 2013


Graffiti in Dura Europos (3rd-century CE)

Who was Mr. Hiya that he dared to scrawl his name at least three times on the door posts and walls of the synagogue in Dura Europos?  A blasphemer?  Or just a little schmuck like men who wrote 'Kilroy was here!', whose fools' names and fools' faces always appeared in public places...?

Kilroy Was Here!

Kilroy first showed up on graffiti left by a mysterious American soldier during the landing in Normandy in 1944 -- or so it was said: no one really knows how the meme began. But thousands of 'Kilroy was here' drawings were scratched and sketched everywhere in Europe during the last years of World War II, especially in newly captured areas or landings, often in the most risky places, and so the phrase became connected with the presence of US troops.  The big Kilroy graffiti fad ended in the 1950s, but today people all over the world still scribble that bald-headed character and 'Kilroy was here' in schools, trains, and other similar public areas.

In short, Kilroy is a pain. 

Graffiti often is. 


Graffiti is defined as any writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed on a wall or other surface in a place where it didn't originally belong.*  It's never part of the intended decoration.  Graffiti ranges from simple written words, especially names, to elaborate wall paintings, and it has existed for millennia -- with countless examples dating back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and all over the Roman empire.

The mountain of ash that covered Pompeii in 79 CE preserved hundreds, if not thousands of such scrawls (like the section of wall pictured above).  There is even an early  meta-reference in the form of an epigram found on a graffiti-covered wall:
I wonder, O wall, that you have not fallen
in ruins from supporting the stupidities 
of so many scribblers
Pompeiian graffiti runs the gamut of personal names and public inanities (such as declarations of love), but some are more ambitious -- or at least more intriguing -- including scribbled curses, magic spells, alphabets, political slogans, and literary quotations.** One inscription gives the address of a woman named Novellia Primigenia of Nuceria, a prostitute reputed to be of great beauty, whose services were much in demand. Another shows a penis accompanied by the text, 'mansueta tene': Handle with care.

Graffiti needn't be quite so rude, but whatever it may be saying, it is -- in and of itself -- always subversive. Looking back from the remove of two thousand years, however, makes the heart grow fonder: such long-ago scribbles display both an individual identity and the kind of intended social interaction that is seldom visible in the distant past.

The Social Hubbub at Dura Europos

Three separate studies have recently taken up the subject of graffiti at Dura, a much lesser known time and place than Pompeii [some background at Zenobia's Gods at the Crossroads].  Now, what's really interesting is that the three historians approach the Durene graffiti from different angles and yet agree in their conclusions: Maura Heyn sets the scene, studying graffiti in the pagan Temple of the Palmyran Gods, while Karen Stern was looking at the scrawls in the Jewish synagogue just down the road from the Palmyran Gods, and at much the same time Jennifer Baird examined graffiti scribbled by visitors on the walls of private houses.  They agree that such graffiti wasn't meant as desecration: it wasn't even illicit or subversive, but rather, it "...show[s] that the presence of scratching text or pictures into walls was, actually, normal at the site."

It seems it was fairly commonplace to leave your own mark on the walls -- even within a god's temple, or a synagogue, or in someone else's home that you happened to be visiting!

So, let's get down to the nitty-gritty.

The synagogue

Torah Shrine and West Wall of synagogue
 In 1932, excavators discovered the walls of a synagogue's assembly hall, largely intact and adorned with over 70 narrative paintings that included labelled images of Moses, Aaron, and other Biblical figures. Although some figures, such as Moses, Ezra, and Abraham are slightly Hellenistic Greek in style, the rest wear Persian garments, displaying little that is reminiscent of Greco-Roman art.

The surviving graffiti didn't make quite such a publicity splash as the paintings did but they were preserved in the same extraordinary way.  During the last days of the city (see Zenobia on The Death of Dura Europos), as they fought off a fierce attack by the Sassanian Persians, the Durenes dumped a huge mass of sand and earth over all the buildings near the vulnerable western wall, thus burying everything along the inside of the wall.  The result was an extended rampart roughly 20 m (60') wide, with an easy gradient to permit troops to run up to any point on the battlements.  It wasn't quite enough: after a gruelling siege, the Persians took the city in 256/7 CE.  Long after Dura's destruction, the buildings incorporated into the defensive embankment continued to resist collapse. The city's population did not survive the Persian attack, but portions of buildings, such as the inscribed and painted walls of the Temple of the Palmyran Gods and the synagogue walls, did. 

So, who was Hiya?

Top: I am Hiya .Below: I am Hanani son of Samuel
Hiya's first message consisted of two simple words, "I [am] Hiya", scratched into a doorpost of the synagogue (underneath, a second man added his own moniker).  According to Karen Stern,
[t]he Aramaic letters of the text are carved irregularly and largely enough to have been visible from the building's elaborately decorated assembly hall. But unlike other elegantly painted inscriptions from the synagogue that clearly announce the names and donations of esteemed benefactors, the presence of this terse graffito, limited to a pronoun and a personal name, initially appears inexplicable. How, if at all, can we make sense of this crudely carved text, placed so ostentatiously in this sacred setting?
It's hard for us to imagine today that anyone would set his name so blatantly within a place of worship unless he intended an act of impiety or scorn.  Hiya certainly wasn't shy:  two more inscriptions can be attributed to him (I am Hiya, son of ..., and I Hiya, son of ... . (am) their father/chief).  If synagogue patrons or visitors had found these markings intolerable, why didn't they just scratch them out or paint over them?  The fact that they didn't (and no graffiti bear any signs of attempted defacement or erasure) must mean that graffiti represent acceptable acts within the sacred space of the synagogue.  In fact, Hiya was not exceptional: at least 47 examples of such graffiti in Greek and Aramaic survive on portions of the synagogue walls and on fragments of door-jambs and door-frames, often with many different names crowded onto the surviving fragments.   These inscriptions may have been considered unremarkable because they were so common.

Remember Me For Good!

Another common type of graffiti in the synagogue are the remembrance inscriptions. These name individuals who should "be remembered" (dkyr/zkyr lw, or the equivalent formula in Greek mnēsthē: "remember").  One such Aramaic graffito is six lines long (left) and reads:

Aliyah son of ... of the sons of Levi. May he be remembered for good before the Lord of Heaven. Amen. This is a memorial for good. 

A male torso with a circle on the left breast appears beneath the text. Perhaps this is an image of Aliyah, thus doubly ensuring that he will be remembered.

What's the point of all this scribbling?

The synagogue graffiti, cut into the hard-to-carve and friable plaster with a stylus or other sharp tool, do not look very pretty but they are legible at close range.  Anyway, aesthetics are not the point.  As Professor Stern says, "The seemingly slapdash writing,  whether in Aramaic or Greek, should not fool us into thinking that these texts were casual or unimportant." The letters are written large and they were meant to be read by visitors.

In fact, as she reminds us, the underlying hope is that passersby will remember -- or read out loud -- such names that appear in the holy placeIf so, the graffiti are remarkable in a good way, because they let individuals  communicate with the deity and with like-minded devotees at the same time.   In short, they will have served as a type of prayer offered up to the divine:  "I am Hiya! Remember me!" Not for him John Donne's prayer:
That thou remember them, some claim as debt;

I think it mercy, if thou wilt forget.
This, then, is what the synagogue graffiti might mean: the act of inscribing one's name and/or requesting remembrance for good is a prayer to the deity in its own right.  At the same time, the audience's response plays an additional role in boosting the efficacy of text or image. 

Perhaps the graffiti artists expected visitors to the building to read the messages out loud in the specific location where they viewed them.  The thick clustering of graffiti around doors and on door-jambs would then make good sense: if a man (and they are all men; no female graffiti have been found) wanted his name to be recited by visitors to give it that extra punch, putting it near the assembly-hall door seems like a smart move.  Engraved, painted or recited names and remembrance requests should be seen, then, as another kind of devotional practice, or prayer, once conducted inside the synagogue -- leaving the surviving graffiti as the only witness to these vanished activities. 

Part II of this post will look at what visitors to the temples of the Palmyran Gods, Aphlad, Azzanathkona, Mithras, and even the Christian church left in the way of graffiti.  Who in Dura's diverse polyglot population scratched their names and remembrance requests in their own sacred spaces?

Kilroy was everywhere.

* Oxford On-line Dictionaries .   While graffito is the correct singular form of graffiti, in practice graffiti may be treated as either singular or plural. 

 **  More history and examples at Wikipedia.  However, their article errs in stating that the earliest graffiti appeared at Ephesus: ancient graffiti begins at least with the Egyptians: it already appeared in the pyramid of Khufu (ca. 2560 BCE); for a more scholarly discussion, especially of Egyptian New Kingdom graffiti, see'An Introduction to Visitors' Graffiti' (The Visitors' Graffiti of Dynasties XVIII and XIX in Abusir and Saqqara by Hana Navratilov).  A fuller discussion of graffiti at Pompeii, 'Reading the Writing on Pompeii's Walls' and some choice examples at Graffiti from Pompeii.  On modern graffiti, see the Graffiti Archaeology Project .  Not least, a new blog devoted to early graffiti is Chloe Ragazzoli's 'Scribbling Through History'.  

Sources.  My sincere thanks to the authors of the three key papers, who so kindly made their articles available: Maura K. Heyn, ('The Terentius Scene in Context', in [L.R. Brody and G. L. Hoffman, eds.] Dura Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity, Boston, 2011, 55-67), Karen B. Stern ('Tagging Sacred Space in the Dura Europos Synagogue', JRA 25/1, 2012, 171-194), and warmest thanks to Jennifer A. Baird for helpful links as well as an advance copy of her forthcoming 'Private Graffiti? Scratching the Walls of Houses at Dura Europos' (in [R. Benefiel and P. Keegan, eds.] Inscriptions in Private Places, Leiden).  I have also made much use of Bernard Goldman's 'Pictorial Graffiti of Dura Europos' (Parthica 1, 1999,19-106)  -- with special thanks to Chuck Jones for his help.  


Top: 'Kilroy was here!' Credit: J.-N. L., re-drawn in July 2006 via Wikipedia.  

Centre: Graffiti on a wall in Pompeii.  From Goldman, Pictorial Graffiti, Fig. 17. 

Top left: Graffiti from Dura Europos.  Yale e-catalogue no. 1938.5999.190.  Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery.

Middle left: Graffiti on doorpost of synagogue: K. Stern (reference above), Fig. 2.

Lower left: Torah Shrine and West Wall of Synagogue installed at the National Museum of Damascus.  Photo credit:  Yale University Art Gallery.

Lowest left: Alayah, remembrance graffito: K. Stern (reference above), Fig. 6 


  1. Anonymous7/5/13 08:46

    Great post - thank you so much!

  2. Anonymous7/5/13 13:08

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  3. Anonymous1/7/13 17:37

    FWIW: Heard in a documentary once--sorry, no cite--that Kilroy was in fact a weld inspector who's name was scrawled in odd corners throughout many Liberty ships. Puzzled GI's took the joke from there. Guess today it would be called a meme.


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