BLOG 289 February 8, 2016
Not a new story – but still troubling! ISIS continues to commit cultural genocide. Destruction of the heritage of the past in such places as Syria’s Aleppo and Mosul has destroyed mosques, minarets and Christian monasteries (See Blog 287). The world understands the importance of historic memory. ISIS doesn’t.
Currently, another treasure has surfaced from the history of the Syrian Christians. First excavated in l932, scholars found a picture of a third-century baptistery that may be the first depiction ever discovered of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. The discovery occurred in Deir ez-Zor that is now the ruins of Dura-Europos that was once the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. The house had once been buried to provide a fortress against invaders in 250 CE. The coverage provided important and rich treasures for our time and the future.
The early house-church was buried in the middle of the third century in eastern Syria where images of Jesus, Peter, and David were also discovered. Surrounding the baptistery was a well-preserved procession of women. To one side is a faded but still discernable picture of a woman leaning over a well and drawing water. The woman is looking over her shoulder and seems to be surprised by something happening behind her. What?
These pictures now hang in the Yale University Art Gallery. Officials first thought the painting to be a scene of Jesus encountering the Samaria women at the well that is described in John’s Gospel (Jn. 4) However, in this biblical story the Samaritan woman was conversing with Jesus. This is not the case in this picture. The picture is far more like the setting of the Annunciation when the angel visited the Virgin Mary saying, “Hail, you are highly favored, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women.” Eastern Orthodoxy always placed great importance on the story of Mary at the well and so it would have been a natural for an inclusion in a baptistery scene.
Archival photographs suggest more secrets may be revealed in the picture. Previously hidden lines now seem to say that this scene depicts the moment when the incarnation began. If so, then this depiction is one if the most important treasures from the past. Such an image is even more important than a museum piece. The heritage of an ancient people and their religion tells us much after yesterday.
The current Syrian Civil War puts such a heritage in danger. Secretary of State John Kerry once noted that ISIS not only beheads individuals but is shredding the heritage of a whole civilization. Some of the worst damage beyond Aleppo has been at Mosul. An 8,000 year history is tied to Mosul that connects Jews, Christians, and Muslims and is where the city of biblical Nineveh once stood.
Important history indeed!