Maiden with Side Buns: a Mosaic Inscribed in Syriac

Louvre Museum, Department of Oriental Antiquities, AO 28294 - -

by Muriel Debié

A Syriac inscription reveals the name of a young woman with a hairstyle traditional of Edessa. This entry introduces a little-known corpus of mosaics currently displayed in the Department of Oriental Antiquities of the Louvre.

The young woman depicted in the mosaic is identified by an Old Syriac inscription as Barlaha or perhaps rather daughter of someone named Barlaha (the inscription is incomplete). Discovered not as part of archaeological investigations, this fragmentary piece is probably a funerary mosaic from the ancient city of Edessa (now Urfa/Şanlıurfa in southeastern Turkey) or from somewhere in the region of Osrhoene, in northern Mesopotamia, where the city was located. The archaic spelling suggests that the mosaic dates to the third or fourth century.

The Syriac language used here is the variety of Aramaic used in Edessa, which began to be written down at the turn of the Christian era, when it was the official language of the Kingdom of Osrhoene. When Osrhoene came under the influence of the Roman Empire and subsequently lost its independence to it, the language, like many others, could have disappeared in favour of Greek, the official language of the eastern part of the empire. But Edessan Aramaic (known as Syriac) had become the sacred and prestigious language of the Aramaic-speaking Christians of the region, before becoming later the standard liturgical language for Christian speakers of other languages over a large area from the Mediterranean to India and China (having penetrated into Iran, Central Asia and Tibet) as well as in Arabia and around the Arabo-Persian Gulf.

The Louvre AO 28294, mosaic acquired in 1984.

On display at the Department of Oriental Antiquities, s. 181, Denon Wing, level –1.

As part of the Parthian Empire, similar to Doura Europos, Palmyra or Hatra, Edessa began to gain importance in the first two centuries of the Christian era. Unique forms of funerary art which developed here differed substantially from any such forms found in Greek and Roman cities and in other Aramaic-speaking cities of the Near East. While elsewhere funeral sites dating to the same period are characterized mainly by statues and bas-reliefs (for example, in Palmyra or Hatra) or paintings on wood (in the Faiyum Oasis in Egypt), Edessan burials stand out for their mosaic carpets which represent the deceased in the form of portraits or depict them as participating in feasts. These carpets were located in the central part of the burial chambers, while banquettes containing the bodies of the deceased were dug into their walls. The chambers could be accessed via a corridor leading up to the mosaic carpet. The doors to the burial chambers were covered by large rolled millstones, some of which are still found in the area.

This very little-known corpus of mosaics is distinguished, as in the other Aramean cities of the region, by a strong Parthian influence, noticeable both in the frontal representations of the characters and in the clothing and jewellery worn by men and women.

Long before they were popularized by Star Wars, side buns were the traditional hairstyle of girls and young women in Edessa, and possibly also of female servants, while married women wore veils over tall headdresses. Seemingly unknown elsewhere, this hairstyle is instantly recognizable as a feature of local fashion.

The Louvre, AO 22917.

On display at the Department of Oriental Antiquities, s. 181, Denon wing, level –1.

Two other very similar fragmentary mosaics, probably from the same tomb or at least the same necropolis, are displayed in the Louvre: one representing a woman of a different age or rank (see image above), wearing one of the tall headdresses characteristic of the region and the other, a young boy wearing a cap of the Phrygian (in reality Parthian) type, also common in iconography (see image below).

The Louvre, AO 28293.

On display at the Department of Oriental Antiquities, s. 181, Denon Wing, level –1.

Muriel Debié, Senior Member of the IUF and Director of Studies at EPHE – PSL, Chair of Oriental Christianity Studies

Historian and philologist, Muriel Debié is a specialist of Syriac studies. Her work mainly deals with texts and their history, from their attestation in manuscripts to their study as a historical source. She is currently preparing, in collaboration with fellow Turkish archaeologists, a book devoted to the little-known corpus of the Osrhoene mosaics (mainly located in the area subject to the violent earthquakes of February 2023).

Cite this blog post
ILARA (2023, February 21). Maiden with Side Buns: a Mosaic Inscribed in Syriac. ILARA, the Institute for Linguistic Heritage and Diversity. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

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