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The Melting Pot of the Ancient Middle East

In 1920, British soldiers digging trenches near the Euphrates River came across ancient wall paintings. In the sands of eastern Syria, they uncovered the remains of the ancient town of Dura-Europos. Located on the Euphrates River, the long-buried settlement was ruled successively by the Macedonians, Parthians, and Romans until its destruction in A.D. 256. Today, the site is known for its buildings, including the world's oldest church, one of the earliest synagogues ever found, and numerous Greco-Roman temples.

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The Roman god Mithras, as seen in his temple at Dura (Carly Silver at Yale University Art Gallery) A view of Dura from the air (Yale University Art Gallery)

Covering about 180 acres, Dura-Europos was founded around 300 B.C. Scholars like Lisa Brody, associate curator for ancient art at the Yale University Art Gallery, which houses many artifacts from the site, affectionately call it by its original name of "Dura." The town was built by Nicanor, a general of Seleucus I, one of Alexander the Great's successors who took power in this region after the Macedonian king's death. In his Parthian Stations, the geographer Isidore of Charax, who probably lived under the early Roman emperors, calls it "the city of Dura Nicanoris, founded by the Macedonians, also called by the Greeks ‘Europus.'"

Brody says, "James Henry Breasted, the American archaeologist, happened to be in Syria at the time." After analyzing and writing about the finds at Dura, Breasted delivered a lecture about the work at the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters. As a result, the French became involved in the excavations, which also caught the eye of Yale professor Mikhail Rostovtzeff.


Heirs to Alexander the Great, the Seleucids established a Greek agora, or market center complete with varied stalls, in Dura. (Yale University Art Gallery)

"Rostovtzeff got Yale's endorsement and approval to enter into this collaboration with the French and began excavations in the late 1920s," says Brody. After ten seasons of excavations, the Americans and Syrians divided the artifacts that had been recovered between them equally, with the Syrians getting the first pick, a typical practice for the time. The Syrians chose the excavated synagogue, with Yale receiving other artifacts, including the wall paintings from both the Christian building and temple of Mithras. "Most of the objects are either in Damascus or Yale," adds Brody. "There are a few things in Paris that were found before the Yale excavations began."

Dura's location was ideal because it was both defensible and near a major water source. "It is high above the Euphrates River, where there is a slight bend, and it's also very well protected because it's a very steep drop down to the river," notes Susan Downey, a professor of art history at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has been involved at excavations at Dura since 1988. "There are two deep wadis [valleys] on either side of the site, so the only part that is all that vulnerable is the desert side."

The city was a strategic location for the Seleucids, the heirs to Seleucus I's Eurasian empire, which, at its height, extended from Pergamum on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor to Bactria in modern Afghanistan. "The reason the Seleucids planted [Dura] where they did was because it was exactly halfway between their two capitals, so it's right in the middle of their empire," says Simon James, a University of Leicester specialist in Dura's military archaeology. "It's the strategic road station in the middle of the Seleucid Empire." The military nature of Dura-Europos is reflected in its Macedonian founders, who were, according to James, "retired soldiers" planted in the area to "gradually establish a city."

"Dura" comes from "duru," which means "fortress" in Aramaic; however, in Caravan Cities (1932), Rostovtzeff finds the word's origins in Assyrian. The Greeks called the site "Europos," a reference to Seleucus I's Macedonian birthplace. The hyphenated name is a modern combination. The Seleucid government mirrored others throughout the Greek world. An official called the strategos was in charge of the military forces in Dura, but later came to be a civil governor; the office became hereditary. Along with the strategos was the epistates, whom James describes as a "royal overseer" for the Seleucids.

A Combination of Cultures

Over time, Dura's local population merged with the Greek settlers to create an eclectic identity. With each succeeding conquest, by the Parthians, Romans, and, finally, the Sasanians, Dura added more layers to its cultural heritage. "There was a mix, first of all, of the Greek settlers, but then the local population [was] Aramaic," notes Downey.

This mix of populations is reflected in the site's sacred architecture. Citizens from nearby Palmyra, an important trade center, built a temple to their gods at Dura; this sanctuary is datable from a dedicatory inscription from the 30s B.C. Residents of Dura built a variety of temples, including one to Zeus Kyrios, an amalgamation of Near Eastern and Greek deities. "The people who built the Temple of Zeus Kyrios…came from a place called Anah, which is down the river—we know this because of the inscription. So, a number of different people moved into this city and the pantheon itself is very mixed," adds Downey.


Temple of the Babylonian god Bel at Dura (Wikimedia Commons)

Other shrines are dedicated to Greco-Syrian hybrid gods. Yale's Rostovsteff identified a temple of Nanaia—possibly a variant of "Nana," the Sumerian goddess of the moon—with Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt and the moon. A temple to another local goddess, Azzanathkona—which relates to the aforementioned village of Anah, also called "Anath"—also relates to Artemis, based on an inscription added in the mid-2nd century when the temple was expanded. "There are a lot of different populations who worship varying forms of the same god," observes Downey.

The conflux of cultures is evident in the variety and construction of the temples. Some temples "don't have a form like that [which is] normal in the Greek and Roman world," says Downey. Brody concurs: "We see things in the sculpture, images of gods that are familiar to us from Greece and Rome—like Heracles, Aphrodite, Hermes—represented sometimes in a foreign or eastern way, an influence from the Near East or Palmyra."

Even the temple architecture is a local product. Brody adds that "the temples themselves tend to use eastern architectural form, even when worshiping Greek and Roman gods." Downey describes this local temple form as one with a walled courtyard with rooms, including chapels, around it. The sanctuary of the god, or naos, was off to one side. This temple form shows an architectural independence from the Romans, even if Roman gods were worshiped in temple precincts.

Parthians to Romans

In 113 B.C., the Parthians, a people that originated in northeastern Iran and expanded outward, took the city from the Seleucids. They remained in control for several centuries, minus a brief Roman interlude from A.D. 116 to 118, after which they resumed power. The Parthians maintained a similar governmental system to that of the Seleucids. The titles of strategos and epistates continued to appear in inscriptions of the late first century B.C. By this time, the strategos, formerly a military official, was the "head of a city order that was drawn from the big, relatively wealthy families who [saw] themselves as Greek" and continued to dominate local politics, says James. During this time, Dura "becomes kind of a frontier-ish town, or at least a city which is towards the western edge of the Parthian Empire." James observes that there is little evidence for how the military functioned in the Parthian period.


This fresco of personified victory comes from the Parthian reign over Dura. (Yale University Art Gallery)

In the 160s, the Parthians' westward movement threatened Rome's border along the Euphrates. The Roman emperor, Lucius Verus, led his forces to Syria to push back the enemy. In 165, he captured Dura and made it a Roman city. He established a permanent military garrison there, which included archers from nearby Palmyra.

At Dura, the Roman military commander likely had political authority in addition to his martial responsibilities. He stationed his garrison within the city itself, located in the northwest corner of the city. Yale archaeologists noted that a wall separated the military section from the rest of the city; the buildings inside this subsection of Dura were distinctly Roman and ranged in function from an amphitheater to military barracks.


Citizens added their names in Greek graffiti on the Palmyrene Gate at Dura. (Yale University Art Gallery)

The invaders presented themselves as comrades freeing Dura from the Parthian yoke. They saw Dura as a Greek city and portrayed the city's future under Roman rule as a "self-governing community under one of the freedom-loving peoples of the Roman Empire" that could essentially "rule [their] own affairs as long as [they] pay their taxes and, basically, say nice things about the emperor," says James.

The Roman invaders kept the aristocratic status quo in control of the city. In previous years, the offices of the strategos and epistates "got rolled into one," he adds, "and that double office continues through, until, at least, the early Roman period." At the same time, the garrison commander would have wielded control over the "gates and walls" and probably political power, as well, he adds.

Dura, strategically placed on the Euphrates, became part of the Romans' larger view for the Near East. "When the Romans seize Dura, they also seize territory well downstream from it, so it becomes sort of the regional capital for the stretch of the river the Romans control," observes James. In general, "it's the regional capital for this chunk of the linear oasis of the Euphrates," though not as large as nearby Palmyra. "Dura was used as a forward base for aggressive operations into Iraq, as it now is, so it was a place to operate from."


This synagogue wall painting shows Mordechai and Esther, biblical heroes who rescued the Jews from the wrath of the evil Persian Haman. (Yale University Art Gallery)

The Synagogue, Church, and Mithraeum

Two of the most interesting finds at Dura were a synagogue and house church, both constructed under Roman rule. The introduction of Judaism and Christianity may be attributed to the army, says James. "This is a time when things like Christianity, also, and Jewish communities are spreading all over the place, along trade routes and the communication networks. It may be that they came in in the baggage of the Roman military, perhaps."

Despite centuries of abandonment, these buildings are in remarkably good condition. When Dura was besieged in the mid-third century, local soldiers built an earthen embankment to defend the city's west side. When it collapsed, it buried the buildings along the western wall, including the church and synagogue, and protected them from the ravages of time and weather.

Dating from the end of the second century, the synagogue is the "earliest synagogue we know of, except for the ones in Israel," according to Downey. Originally part of a house, the synagogue also had a "Hall of Assembly," which may have contained a Torah niche. Interestingly, no artifacts, except for a small papyrus fragment, were found in the synagogue. The assumption, Downey says, "is that the people who worshiped there knew that the city was under siege and they took things, like the Torah rolls…out with them when and if they left the city." The synagogue was renovated in the mid-3rd century; the remains from this era are the ones seen today. At the time of its construction, the synagogue was enlarged at the expense of the house; another residence was added on for extra space.


Here, the prophet Samuel anoints David as King of Israel. (Yale University Art Gallery)

"The synagogue has very elaborate paintings," says Downey. These wall paintings include depictions of biblical figures like Moses, Aaron, and Esther. Dura's synagogue boasts more elaborate construction and decoration than other local temples. "It's a much bigger building [and] much more elaborately decorated" than the Mithraeum and Christian building, says Brody. The synagogue's palette of greens and yellows differs from those in the other religious houses and features "a much wider range of colors" than they do.

The Christian house church was built in around 241. Inside is the earliest known baptismal font. The paintings, all found in the baptistery, depict common biblical scenes of both the Old and New Testaments: Jesus walking on water, the Good Shepherd, David and Goliath, and others. While the exact reason for its location in a house is unknown, perhaps it is all the Christians could afford.

"It's possible that the house belonged to somebody who either was a Christian or became a Christian," adds Downey. It is also possible that "the house belonged to somebody who either was a Christian or became a Christian and that's why [it] had that form," she observes. "It's not nearly in as good shape as the synagogue. The Christian chapel is much smaller, so it is a reasonable assumption that there weren't that many Christians in the city and the paintings are, on the whole, of much less quality."


A reconstruction of the font and registers of the baptistry (Yale University Art Gallery)

The Christian building is located "right underneath one of the wall towers," says James. "Clearly, the garrison knew these guys were there," he says. "The implications, such as we have, are of a sort of multi-ethnic complex society." However, Brody says that "the evidence suggests that that was [more of an] underground religious community." Their place of worship "was a house converted into a meeting-place," she adds, indicating that "the Christian community was still, at that time, persecuted."

Another prominent temple was the Mithraeum, home of mystery cult honoring a sun god, Mithras, who attained prominence in the second century. This temple's founding attested from a Palmyrene inscription from about A.D. 168-169. The building has the typical form of a Mithraeum: a long room with benches on either side. Reliefs of the god would be located in a cult niche at the end of the hall. These reliefs depicted Mithras killing a bull.

Downey notes that few other temples of Mithras have been found in Syria, leading scholars to believe that the cult must have been imported from elsewhere. Not so coincidentally, the Mithraeum here was built in a place that, in 165, became occupied by a Roman army encampment. "The people who built it have Semitic names, but some of them may have served in the Roman army in Europe and learned about Mithras," confirms Downey. In one wall painting in the Mithraeum, Mithras rides a horse and carries a bow and arrow, a depiction reminiscent of the soldiers stationed in Dura, who were archers from Palmyra.

Wall paintings from the Christian building and the Mithraeum are currently in storage at Yale. "Now that they've been out of the ground for decades, the colors have started to fade and details have started to be lost," says Brody. The original plaster on the church walls contains salts that "migrate outward" when not in a climate-controlled environment. Because of these salts and the unstable shellac put on the paintings to preserve them when they were first excavated, the artwork has deteriorated. They "lost so much detail and so much vibrancy of the color that they are not what people expect to see and they are almost non-exhibitable" for the gallery, she adds.

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Christ walks on water in one of the baptistry's wall paintings. (Yale University Art Gallery) Wall painting of Women at the Tomb of Christ from the baptistry (Carly Silver at Yale University Art Gallery)

To prep the paintings for an upcoming traveling exhibition, Yale conservators are retouching the artwork with reversible paints. To make image look as they had in antiquity, conservators reference photographs taken at the original excavation site. The newly vibrant colors will show the audience a more accurate version of "what these paintings looked like in antiquity," says Brody.

In her work at Yale, Brody has found similarities between the Mithraeum and the Christian building. Besides the fact that "they're both houses that were converted into religious buildings," they are also "oriented on a central niche area, with decoration in an arch shape around it and then on the walls." Both buildings share a similar color palette of earth tones, like red, black, white, and gray. "I would not be at all surprised or shocked if someone told me the same artists were working on both buildings," she adds.

Dura's Last Days

In A.D. 194, Emperor Septimius Severus divided the province of Syria to limit the power of its previously rebellious governors. As a result, Dura became part of the new province of Syria Coele. In its later years, it also attained the status of a Roman colonia, which, by the third century, was what James calls an "honorary title for an important town." He suggests that the "Roman authorities wanted to present Dura as an important city of the Roman province." That sense of unity would have helped the Romans rally Dura against the increasing power of the Sasanians, the heirs to the Parthians, in the east. "It's only with the arrival of the Sasanian Persians in the last few years of its life that it really is a frontier fortress [when] it's facing into the danger of attack," says James.


This inscription stone in Mithras's Dura temple mentions the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. (Yale University Art Gallery)

In 253-254, Shapur I of the Sasanian Empire attacked the city, destroying it two years later. The conflict brought out an early example of chemical warfare. Underneath a city wall, archaeologists found tunnels in which the Romans and Sasanians waged war. James concluded that the Sasanians prepared a trap for the Roman soldiers, lighting torches of sulfur and pitch to release a poisonous smoke as the enemy entered a tunnel directly above. The rising sulfur dioxide would have rendered the Roman soldiers unconscious; in their panic, those still awake would be blocked by their fallen comrades.

James calls the idea of releasing poisonous smoke "a little-recognized, probably little-practiced, but quite widely known, aspect of Greek siege warfare." Developed in the last centuries B.C., "the full range of these siege techniques were known to the Romans, who also used them." At Dura, though, the Sasanians proved to be masters of this Greco-Roman technique, which James says they, too, knew from early in their own history.


Mithras, dressed as a Palmyrene archer, at the hunt in a wall painting from Dura's Mithraeum (Carly Silver at Yale University Art Gallery)

Through such tactics, Shapur I took Dura and destroyed it. Why would the Sasanians want to ruin the city? "We don't really know," Downey admits. "They just didn't want Dura; they just wanted it not to be there or not to be inhabited." James theorizes that the back-and-forth conquering of Dura angered the Sasanians, especially after the Romans retook the city and fortified it in 254, defying the Sasanians. Shapur attacked soon after for "partly punitive" reasons, he says, with the mindset of "We took the city, it rejected us; therefore, we're going to destroy it." They similarly razed and destroyed "another former buffer city," Hatra, in 240, when it defied them.

After destroying Dura, Shapur would have deported many of its citizens. "One of the things the Sasanians went in for was biblical-style mass deportations, rather along the lines of Sennacherib," the Assyrian king who moved large populations of Jews at his will in the Bible, James adds. The Sasanians acted similarly in 240 with Hatra. James describes this move as a "terror tactic." After Dura was destroyed in the struggle between the Sasanians and Romans, there would be no need to repopulate it: its place in the region's political dynamic had been taken by other cities.


Taken in the 1930s, this original excavation photo depicts an archway in Dura's Mithraeum. (Yale University Art Gallery)

The razing ironically preserved many of the city's greatest artifacts underneath the rubble. Dura's finds remained intact partially "because, after it was destroyed by the Sasanians in 256, it was never reinhabited for whatever reason and, so, the desert sand just blew in," Downey says. If the city had been reinhabited, the dry sands might have not preserved the finds. Because of additional defense constructions, the area filled in "and never reopened until the excavations started." Adds James, "There's no need to reoccupy Dura after its destruction, which, of course, is good news for archaeologists, because it means, to be able to get that [normally], we'd [have] a modern town on top of it."

Dura Today

Dura is far from abandoned now, though, with excavation continuing through to the present day. "There are current excavations going on at the site, a French-Syrian expedition under the direction of archaeologist Pierre Leriche," says Brody. Leriche is focusing "on the city plan and the fortifications," with the help of Jennifer Baird of the University of London at Birkbeck. Baird is attempting to reconstruct daily life at Dura by "looking at the artifacts and the assemblages and what they can tell about daily life," adds Brody.

If Dura was neither a large city or nor outstandingly rich in the ancient world, why is it so important to archaeologists? Of course, the remarkable condition of its finds attracts much attention. The vast array of temples, ranging from polytheistic to monotheistic, are vast; its paintings and sculptures are beautiful. Others see Dura as a remarkable representation of daily town life in the ancient world. "The attraction of Dura is that it was not vastly important the way a city like Antioch was…it's not anywhere near the scale of something like Damascus or Jerusalem," notes James. He adds that "a lot of people say there was no such thing as a typical town in antiquity because they're all highly diverse, but it's [Dura] a medium-sized town, rather than a great city. Probably, there were [sic] larger number of cities that were, sort of, Dura-scale, rather than these vast metropolises."

Carly Silver is a junior at Barnard College, Columbia University, in New York City. A religion major, she is concentrating on ancient belief systems and their effects on modern monotheism.