Writing on the Wall: Graffiti from the Ancient World
Graffiti can be used for self-expression, for protest, and to mark disputed turf. Sometimes graffiti is vilified as vandalism. Sometimes it’s celebrated as street art.
Stacked human figures in a catacomb in Beit Shearim, Israel (Photo by Ezra Gabbay)
But graffiti also existed in the ancient world, and its meaning varied then as much as it does now. “What the graffiti are doing, what the writer wants them to do, varies according to context,” said Professor Karen B. Stern (Brooklyn College), author of Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity.
Stern studied graffiti from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, around the Middle East and in parts of North Africa, across a 1,000-year period beginning in the seventh or eighth century B.C. She examined graffiti in sacred sites for worship and burial, in markets and entertainment venues, and in languages including Greek, Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew. She also found drawings of things like ships, warriors and menorahs (which were a Jewish symbol centuries before the Star of David came into use).
Some graffiti consisted of nothing but names — ancient tags left by travelers or pilgrims. But often, Stern told SUM, graffiti served a “declarative” purpose, “announcing something to the surrounding world in a particular way,” like this message in a theater: “This is where the Jews sit.” Or a vendor’s message to her customers: “This is where I sell my goods.”
Partial view of a curse inscribed in Greek letters in a catacomb in Beit Shearim, Israel, threatening anyone who disturbs the body (Photo by Ezra Gabbay)
Some graffiti writers were trying to communicate with God by publicly writing their prayers. Others left inscriptions in burial chambers ranging from messages of comfort to warnings “to protect the dead from the living and the living from the dead,” Stern said. One exhortation from a catacomb said: “Good luck in your resurrection!” (We’ll never know if that statement was sarcastic or sincere.)
History suggests that in many places, Jews in antiquity had antagonistic relations with non-Jewish neighbors. But Stern said the graffiti proves otherwise, showing Jews in daily contact with Christians, Muslims and pagans, sometimes even praying alongside them.
“Maybe in the day to day, things were not as fraught” as historical accounts suggest, Stern said, adding that graffiti helps us “better understand the daily lives of Jews in antiquity” by revealing routines and activities “that we never knew existed.”
Explore This Work
Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity
Princeton University Press, 2018
Karen B. Stern Gabbay (Associate Professor, History) | Profile 1
Colleges and Schools
“What It Was Like to Be a Jew in the Roman Empire” (The Daily Beast)
“The Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Jewish Graffiti” (Atlas Obscura)