Dura Europos (“Fort Europos”) is a ruined Hellenistic-Roman walled city built on cliff 90 meters above the banks of the Euphrates river. It is located near the village of Salhiyé, in today’s Syria.
Destroyed by war and abandoned in the 3rd century AD, it lie hidden until its rediscovery in 1920. Excavations have revealed, among other important ruins, the oldest synaogogue and oldest church ever found. Due to its remarkable preservation and has sometimes been dubbed the “Pompeii of the Syrian Desert.”
Dura Europos was founded in 303 BC by the Seleucids (Alexander the Great’s successors) on the intersection of an east-west trade route and a north-south trade route along the Euphrates. The new city, named for the birthplace of Seleucus I Nicator, ( Born c.358 in Europos (Greek: Εὐρωπός) ancient Macedonia)controlled the river crossing on the route between Antioch on the Orontes and Seleucia on the Tigris. Dura Europos was part of a network of military colonies intended to secure Seleucid control of the Middle Euphrates.
Dura was rebuilt as a great Hellenistic city in the 2nd century BC, with a rectangular grid of streets arranged around a large central agora, was formally laid out. Its location on a major crossroads made it a very cosmopolitan city: inscriptions in many languages have been found here and the religious buildings of pagans, Jews and Christians stand side by side.
Dura Europos later became a frontier fortress of the Parthian Empire and it was captured by the Romans in 165 AD. In the early 200s AD, the famed house-church and synagogue were built at Dura Europos. There was also a Mithraeum, a Temple of Bel and a Temple of Adonis in the multi-cultural city.
Dura Europos was abandoned after a Sassanian siege in 256-257. In a last-ditch attempt to save the city, the synagogue was filled in to make a fortress, thereby ensuring its preservation. The city eventually became covered in shifting sands and disappeared from sight.
Although the existence of Dura-Europos was long known through literary sources, it was not rediscovered until British troops under Captain Murphy made the first discovery during the Arab rebellion in the aftermath of World War I. On March 30, 1920, a soldier digging a trench uncovered beautifully preserved frescoes. 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 excavations of the site, undertaken by Franz Cumont and published in 1922-23, identified the site as 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 then interfered.
Since 1986 excavations have resumed. 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”.
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