The synagogue exhibit is a metaphor for everything that is special about the National Museum in Damascus, Syria. It's supposed to be one of the facility's most famous displays, and yet it isn't signposted. Locating it will tax your orienteering skills to their limit unless, on your quest through the galleries, you happen to glimpse the attendant Abu Mustapha, which we were lucky enough to do. He will lead you down obscure corridors to an unlabeled door and push it open to reveal a 1,750-year-old Jewish house of worship, painstakingly transported, in its entirety, from its original home on the Euphrates.
Desert conditions must have helped preserve the colors of the frescoes adorning the synagogue's walls from ceiling to floor. They depict scenes from the Old Testament in vivid imagery, which is all the more incredible considering that such portrayal of the human figure is expressly forbidden in the Talmud. You can even see the hand of God pulling people up to Heaven by the hair (painful, but probably better than going to Hell). The same, slightly ominous hand, can be seen parting the Red Sea as Moses leads the Israelites through.
Tucking away a treasure like this in a hidden corner, almost defying you to find it, is typical of the fascinating, and slightly maddening, National Museum. There is an extraordinary range of artifacts, stretching down the milleniums. One enters the building's main entrance through two huge stucco pillars that have also been brought in from the desert, this time from the 8th century Umayyad palace al-Hayr al-Gharbi, near Palmyra. Examples of what is suspected to be the world's first alphabet, Ugarit, show evidence of agreements between ancient kings and merchants carved in clay; just a few rooms away can be seen beautiful Korans and other incredible works of medieval art in stone, ceramic and wood. Many of the displays are not labeled or are identified confusingly (and rarely in English). The museum's guidebook is dense and difficult to use, but one presses on regardless, spellbound by the archaeological wealth on show.
Syria's historical position at the crossroads of empires explains the multicultural feel of the displays. The museum's classical collection could be housed in any European city, with its Greek gods and Roman mosaics. But turn a corner and you stroll past a row of medieval, Central Asian figurines, displayed in one of many Islamic galleries. There are also linens rescued from Palmyra, with their dyes still visible despite being over 1,800 years old.
The National Museum's approach to signage is probably just as ancient. But don't be deterred. Good things come to those who search high and low.