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Ruins and city wall. Photo  Francis E. LuisierDura-Europos
("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 Syria.
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 Palmyra.
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 Damascus, 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.


Main References: wikipedia.org, The Syrian, Britannica, Encarta and Columbia encyclopedias, ....


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