Any traveller, when visiting a new city, is sure to take in its highlights: the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, or the Empire State Building. Fine art, architecture, and museums are some of the key ways that we learn about other cultures and the past. The problem with high culture and noteworthy buildings, though, is that they point us to the most celebrated (and often) wealthiest slice of society. If you want to get behind the veneer of ‘the very best’ you have to look elsewhere.
The problem is more acute when looking for clues about the past. Most everything we know about ancient peoples comes from their literature and architectural ‘wonders’: the Arch of Trajan, the Pyramids, and so on. Even in Pompeii, where a city was frozen in time, much of the art we hear about was commissioned. These aren’t good evidence for the lives of everyday people. This is one of the reasons that graffiti and street art can be so revelatory: they can tell us about the impulses, interests, and lives of ordinary people.
While some street art—the colorful paintings on the Berlin Wall, or the Banksy by the Zabar’s on the Upper West Side—is celebrated and curated (in the case of the Banksy it is literally behind plexiglass), other graffiti is more mundane, dispensable, and communicative. Even when these tags are not acts of resistance, they are remarkable in the access they give us to popular concerns.
A new book by Brooklyn College of CUNY professor Karen Stern seeks to change all that. In Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity, she gives us a glimpse into the lives of the ancient Jews forgotten by historians but who left their mark on their environment. She draws together the evidence for Jewish graffiti from synagogues, tombs, theaters, and public spaces to build up a picture of what it was like to be a Jew in the Roman empire.
Her explorations found graffiti of numerous kinds: some are just texts (recording the names of the writers); some, she argues, are prayers demanding the attention of those who might pass by the spot; others have imagery of menorahs, obelisks, horses, ships, and even shrouded skeletons. Some of the graffiti is pious and poignant: a graffito from catacomb 20 in Beit Shearim reads “Be of good courage, pious parents! No one is immortal!” Another graffito close by almost flippantly wishes the occupants “Good luck in your resurrection!” Communicative inscriptions like these are found all over the ancient Mediterranean, in Southern Europe, Mesopotamia, and what is now Israel. Graffiti is and was omnipresent.
What’s most startling is how reading the writing on the wall can subvert the vision of Jewish behavior crafted by literary elites. As Stern told The Daily Beast, “On a basic level, graffiti sometimes serve as the only records for the underdogs of ancient history—non-elite people including slaves and women—whose daily lives are more rarely documented in ancient literary sources.“ The caricature of self-isolating Jews is undercut by much of the research here; the mere presence of graffiti in theaters, town halls and hippodromes testifies to the presences of Jews in spaces where they otherwise left no trace.
In her study of prayer Stern reveals that Jews were often engaged in the same form of devotional activities as their Christian and pagan peers. One of most famous discoveries of the 1930s was the unearthing of the Syrian town of Dura Europos. Dura flourished from the fourth century BCE to the end of the third and in its time was home to Roman, Arab, Syrian, and Greek merchants and soldiers. Excavations revealed three important sites of religious worship: an ancient and elaborately decorated synagogue, the world’s oldest identified Christian church, and a Mithraeum (a pagan religious site dedicated to Mithras, a god popular with Roman soldiers), as well as other pagan temples. Many of these sites contained graffiti, but what interested Stern was the ways in which the graffiti was used: the same language of remembrance is used in several sites, and visitors to all kinds of religious centers would consistently would scratch their names at eye level in prominent locations within the buildings.
Stern comes to two important conclusions about the Dura graffiti. First, inscribing one’s name is strategic and intended to draw an audience who might interact with it (perhaps by reading it out or offering a prayer). Second there was a shared ‘vocabulary’ of practice among people in Dura regardless of their religious affiliation, whereby scratching one’s name did not violate any unspoken laws of behavior.
She also discusses the surprising presence of Jewish graffiti in pagan sanctuaries. Even though their conduct flew in the face of rabbinical teaching, some Jews invoked God in contexts that were decidedly non-Jewish. It’s a sign that, rather than avoiding other religions, Jews could interact with an alien sacred space in an authentic manner that treated that space as “plastic” and malleable.
Most surprising of all, Stern’s findings overturn much of what we thought we knew about Jewish-Christian relations. She examines the graffiti produced in periods that the literary records describe as moments of hostility and antipathy. Instead of a decline in public statements about Jewish identity, she found Jews proudly announcing themselves to their contemporaries. One woman drew a menorah in the marketplace and others used graffiti to mark their seats at the theater. As Stern notes, if these actions would have harmed business or provoked violence, they probably would not have occurred: “Presumably if Jews uniformly inhabited environments as consistently hostile as Christian authors describe, applications of menorah graffiti to public spaces throughout Asia Minor and northern Syria would be incredibly risky.”
All of which suggests that rather than huddling in back alleys and quietly hiding their identities, Jews in the Roman world were “willing to reshape their urban environments to assert their collective presence.” The presence of graffiti in public spaces offer evidence of a neutral, if not amicable, relationship between Jews and non-Jews in periods previously thought of as hostile.