("Fort Europos") This important archaeological site has been
called the Pompeii of the Syrian Desert, it was a Hellenistic and
Roman walled city built on an escarpment ninety meters above the
right bank of the Euphrates river. It is located near the village
of Salhiyé, in today's Siria.
It was founded in 303 BC by the Seleucids on the intersection of
an east-west trade route and the trade route along the Euphrates.
The new city, commemorating the birthplace of Alexander's
successor Seleucus I Nicator, controlled the river crossing on the
route between his newly founded cities of Antioch and Seleucia on
the Tigris. Its rebuilding as a great city built after the
Hippodamian model, with rectangular blocks defined by
cross-streets ranged round a large central agora, was formally
laid out in the 2nd century BC.
The traditional view of Dura-Europos as a great caravan city is
becoming nuanced by the discoveries of locally made manufactures
and traces of close ties with Palmira.
During the later second century BC it came under Parthian control
and in the first century BC, it served as a frontier fortress of
the Arsacid Parthian Empire, with a multicultural population, as
inscriptions in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Hatrian,
Palmyrenean, Middle Persian and Safaitic Pahlavi testify. It was
captured by the Romans in 165 and abandoned after a Sassanian
siege in 256-257. After it was abandoned, it was covered by sand
and mud and disappeared from sight.
Dura-Europos was a cosmopolitan society, controlled by a tolerant
Macedonian aristocracy descended from the original settlers. In
the course of its excavation, over a hundred parchment and papyrus
fragments and many inscriptions have revealed texts in Greek and
Latin (the latter including a sator square), Palmyrenean, Hebrew,
Hatrian, Safaitic, and Pahlavi. The excavations revealed temples
to Greek, Roman and Palmyrene gods. There were mithraea, as one
would expect in a military city.
Although the existence of Dura-Europos was long known through
literary sources, it was not rediscovered until British troops
under Capt. Murphy made the first discovery during the Arab Revolt
in the aftermath of World War I. On March 30, 1920, a soldier
digging a trench uncovered brilliantly fresh wall-paintings. The
American archeologist James Henry Breasted, then at Baghdad, was
alerted. Major excavations were carried out in the 1920s and 1930s
by French and American teams. The first archaeology on the site,
undertaken by Franz Cumont and published in 1922-23, identified
the site with Dura-Europos, and uncovered a temple, before renewed
hostilities in the area closed it to archaeology. Later, renewed
campaigns directed by Michael Rostovtzeff funded by Yale
University continued until 1937, when funds ran out with only part
of the excavations published. World War II intervened. Since 1986
excavations have resumed in a joint Franco-Syrian effort under the
direction of Pierre Leriche. Not the least of the finds were
astonishingly well-preserved arms and armour belonging to the
Roman garrison at the time of the final Sassanian siege of 256.
Finds included painted wooden shields and complete horse armours,
preserved by the very finality of the destruction of the city that
journalists have called "the Pompeii of the desert".
The world's oldest preserved Jewish synagogue was dated by
an Aramaic inscription to 244. It was preserved, ironically, when
it had to be infilled with earth to strengthen the city's
fortifications against a Sassanian assault in 256. It was
uncovered in 1935 by Clark Hopkins, who found that it contains a
forecourt and house of assembly with frescoed walls depicting
people and animals, and a Torah shrine in the western wall facing
Jerusalem. At first, it was mistaken for a Greek temple. The
synagogue paintings, the earliest continuous surviving biblical
narrative cycle, are conserved at Damasco, together with the
complete Roman horse-armour.
There was also the earliest identified Christian house church.
"Their evidently open and tolerated presence in the middle of a
major Roman garrison town reveals that the history of the early
church was not simply a story of pagan persecution" (Simon James).
The surviving frescoes of the baptistry room are probably the most
ancient Christian paintings. We can see the "Good Shepherd" (this
iconography had a very long history in the Classical world), the
"Healing of the paralytic" and "Christ and Peter walking on the
water". A much larger fresco depicts two women approaching a large
sarcophagus, ie. probably the two Marys visiting Christ's tomb.
The frescoes clearly followed the Hellenistic Jewish iconographic
tradition but they are more crude than the paintings of the nearby
synagogue. Fragments of parchment scrolls with Hebrew texts have
also been unearthed; they resisted meaningful translation until
J.L. Teicher pointed out that they were Christian Eucharistic
prayers, so closely connected with the prayers in Didache that he
was able to fill lacunae in the light of the Didache text. In
1933, among fragments of text recovered from the town dump outside
the Palmyrene Gate, a fragmentary text was unearthed from an
unknown Greek harmony of the gospel accounts — comparable to
Tatian's Diatessaron, but independent of it.