Temple of Bel at Dura-Europos
Dura-Europos is located in Syria
Shown within Syria
Location near Salhiyah, Syria
Coordinates 34°44′49″N 40°43′48″E / 34.747°N 40.730°E / 34.747; 40.730
Type settlement
Founded c. 300 BC
Abandoned 256-257 AD
Cultures Hellenistic, Parthian, Roman
Site notes
Excavation dates 1922—1937
Archaeologists James Henry Breasted
Franz Cumont
Michael Rostovtzeff
Pierre Leriche
Ownership Public
Public access Yes
Events at Dura[1]

c. 300 BC

Dura-Europos founded by the Seleucids

[+187 years]

c. 113 BC

Parthians take Dura

c. 65-19 BC

City walls constructed, including some towers

[+80 years]

c. 33 BC

Dura becomes a Parthian provincial administrative center

[+16 years]

c. 17-16 BC

Palmyrene Gate begun

[+133 years]

AD 116

Trajan takes Dura. Triumphal arch built

[+5 years]

AD 121

Parthians regain Dura

[+39 years]

AD 160


[+4 years]

AD 164

Romans under Lucius Verus again control Dura

c. AD 168-171

Mithraeum first built

c. AD 165-200

House converted to synagogue

[+47 years]

c. AD 211

Dura a Roman colony

post-AD 216

City walls heightened

[+13 years]

c. AD 224

(Parthians defeated by Sassanids)

c. AD 232-256

House converted into a Christian chapel and decorated

[+14 years]

AD 238

Graffito stating "Persians descended on us" was written

[+2 years]

c. AD 240

Mithraeum rebuilt

c. AD 244-254

Synagogue paintings

[+13 years]

AD 253

First Sassanid attack [2]

post-AD 254

Defensive embankment built to bolster city walls

[+3 years]

AD 256-257

Dura falls to the Sassanid king Shapur I [3]

Dura-Europos (Greek: Δούρα Ευρωπός), also spelled Dura-Europus, was a Hellenistic, Parthian and Roman border city built on an escarpment 90 m above the right bank of the Euphrates river. It is located near the village of Salhiyé, in today's Syria.

Dura-Europos is extremely important for archaeological reasons. As it was abandoned after its conquest in 256–7, nothing was built over it and no later building programs obscured the architectonic features of the ancient city. Its location on the edge of empires meant for a co-mingling of cultural traditions, much of which was preserved under the city's ruins. Some remarkable finds have been brought to light, including numerous temples, wall decorations, inscriptions, military equipment, tombs, and even dramatic evidence of the Sassanian siege during the Imperial Roman period which led to the site's abandonment.


Hellenistic Era

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 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 (James).

During the later 2nd century BC it came under Parthian control[4] and in the 1st 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.[5] 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.

Map of Dura Europus, Syria.


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 in the aftermath of World War I and the Arab Revolt. 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 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 armour, preserved by the very finality of the destruction of the city that journalists have called "the Pompeii of the desert". Finds from Dura-Europos are on display in the Deir ez-Zor Museum.[6]


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 was a Mithraeum, as one would expect in a Roman military city.

Remains of the synagogue

The synagogue

The Jewish synagogue, located by the western wall between towers 18 and 19, the last phase of which was dated by an Aramaic inscription to 244. It is the best preserved of the many ancient synagogues of that era that have been uncovered by archaeologists. 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 1932 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,[7] are conserved at Damascus, together with the complete Roman horse-armour.

The Dura-Europos church, a house church with chapel area on right.

The house church

There was also the identified the Dura-Europos church, the earliest Christian house church, located by the 17th tower and preserved by the same defensive fill that saved the synagogue. "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".[8] The building consists of a house conjoined to a separate hall-like room, which functioned as the meeting room for the church. 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". These earliest depictions of Jesus Christ ever found anywhere date back to 235 A.D.

A much larger fresco depicts two women (and a third, mostly lost) approaching a large sarcophagus, i.e. probably the three Marys visiting Christ's tomb. The name Salome was painted near one of the women.[citation needed] There were also frescoes of Adam and Eve as well as David and Goliath. The frescoes clearly followed the Hellenistic Jewish iconographic tradition but they are more crudely done 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.[9]

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.

The Mithraeum

Also partially preserved by the defensive embankment was the Mithraeum (CIMRM 34-70), located between towers 23 and 24. It was unearthed in January 1934 after years of expectation as to whether Dura would reveal traces of the Roman Mithras cult. The earliest archaeological traces found within the temple are from between AD 168 and 171,[10] which coincides with the arrival of Lucius Verus and his troops. At this stage it was still a room in a private home. It was extended and renovated between 209 and 211, and most of the frescoes are from this period. The tabula ansata of 210 offers salutation to Septimus Severus, Caracalla and Geta. The construction was managed by a centurio principe praepositus of the legio IIII Scythicae et XVI Flaviae firmae (CIMRM 53), and it seems that construction was done by imperial troops. The mithraeum was enlarged again in 240, but in 256—with war with Sassanians looming—the sanctuary was filled in and became part of the strengthened fortifications. Following excavations, the temple was transported in pieces to New Haven, Connecticut, where it was rebuilt (and is now on display) at Yale University's Gallery of Fine Arts.

The surviving frescoes, graffiti and dipinti (which number in the dozens) are of enormous interest to the study of the social composition of the cult.[11] The statuary and altars were found intact, as also the typical relief of Mithras slaying the bull, with the hero-god dressed as usual in "oriental" costume ("trousers, boots, and pointed cap"). As is typical for mithraea in the Roman provinces in the Greek East, the inscriptions and graffiti are mostly in Greek, with the rest in Palmyrene (and some Hellenized Hebrew). The end of the sanctuary features an arch with a seated figure on each of the two supporting columns. Inside and following the form of the arch is a series of depictions of the zodiac.[12] Within the framework of the now-obsolete theory that the Roman cult was "a Roman form of Mazdaism" ("la forme romaine du mazdeisme"), Cumont supposed that the two Dura friezes represented the two primary figures of his Les Mages hellénisés, i.e. "Zoroaster" and "Ostanes".[13] This reading has not found a footing; "the two figures are Palmyrene in all their characteristic traits"[14] and are more probably portraits of leading members of that mithraeum's congregation of Syrian auxiliaries.[15]

The Fall of Dura

The reason for the good state of preservation of these buildings and their frescoes was due to their location, close to the main city wall facing west, and the military necessity to strengthen the wall. The Sassanid Persians had become adept at tunneling under such walls in order to undermine them and create breaches. As a countermeasure the Roman garrison decided to sacrifice the street and the buildings along the wall by filling them with rubble to bolster the wall in case of a Persian mining operation, so the Christian chapel, the synagogue, the Mithraeum and many other buildings were entombed. They also buttressed the walls from the outside with an earthen mound forming a glacis and sealed it with a casing of mud brick to prevent erosion.

The Palmyrene Gate, the principal entrance to the city of Dura Europos.

There is no written record of the siege of Dura. However, the archaeologists uncovered quite striking evidence of the siege and how it progressed.[16]


The buttressing of the walls would be tested in AD 256 when Shapur I besieged the city. True to fears, Shapur set his engineers to undermine what archaeologists called Tower 19, two towers north of the Palmyrene Gate. When the Romans became aware of the threat, they dug a countermine with the aim of meeting the Persian effort and attack them before they could finish their work. The Persians had already dug complex galleries along the wall by the time the Roman countermine reached them. They managed to fight off the Roman attack, and when the city defenders noticed the flight of soldiers from the countermine, it was quickly sealed. The wounded and stragglers were trapped inside, where they died. (It was the coins found with these Roman soldiers that dated the siege to AD 256.) The countermine was successful, for the Persians abandoned their operations at Tower 19.

A view of the southern wadi and part of the walls of the city of Dura Europos.

Next, the Sassanids attacked Tower 14, the southernmost along the western wall. It overlooked a deep ravine to the south and it was from that direction that it was attacked. This time the mining operation was successful in that it caused the tower and adjacent walls to subside. However the Roman countermeasure which bolstered the wall prevented it from collapsing.

This brought a third approach to entering the city. A ramp was raised again attacking Tower 14, but, as it was being built and the garrison fought to stop the progress of the ramp, another mine was started near the ramp. Its scope was not to cause a collapse of the wall—the buttress had been successful—but to pass under it and penetrate the city. This tunnel was built to allow the Persians four abreast to move through it. It eventually entered the city and pierced the inner embankment and, when the ramp was completed, Dura's end had come. As Persian troops charged up the ramp, their counterparts in the tunnel would have invaded the city with little opposition, as nearly all the defenders would have been on the wall attempting to repulse the attack from the ramp. City survivors would have been marched off to Ctesiphon and there sold as slaves. The city, once pillaged, was never rebuilt.

Chemical warfare

In January 2009, researchers claimed they had found evidence that the Persian Empire used poisonous gases on Dura against the Roman defenders during the siege. Excavations at Dura have discovered the remains of 19 Roman and 1 Persian soldiers at the base of the city walls[17]. An archaeologist at the University of Leicester suggested that bitumen and sulphur crystals were ignited to create poisonous gas, which was then funnelled through the tunnel with the use of underground chimneys and bellows.[18] The Roman soldiers had been constructing a countermine, and Sassanian forces are believed to have released the gas when their mine was breached by the Roman countermine. The lone Persian soldier discovered among the bodies is believed to be the individual responsible for releasing the gas before the fumes overcame him as well.[19]

International Prize

The Jury of the International Carlo Scarpa Prize for Gardens has unanimously decided that the twenty-first of these annual awards (2010) will go to Dura Europos, near Salhiyé, on the right bank of the middle course of the River Euphrates, in Syria.[20]

See also


  1. ^ Based on the chronology found in Hopkins, 1979, pp.269-271.
  2. ^ More recent analysis has brought into doubt this event. See, David McDonald, "Dating the Fall of Dura-Europos", Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, V.35/1 (1986), pp.45-68.
  3. ^ McDonald, 1986, p.68, prefers 257 as the fall, based on the lateness in the year of the issue from the mint of the coins found at Dura which provided the year 256. He also argues that a garrison of Sassanid forces probably remained in the city for perhaps a year after the locals had been deported.
  4. ^ F. Millar, "Dura-Europos under Parthian rule," in Das Partherreich und sein Zeugnisse/The Arsacid Empire: Sources and Documentation, J. Weisehöfer, ed. (Stuttgart) 1998
  5. ^ F. Millar, The Roman Near east, 31 BC-AD337 (Harvard University Press) 1993, pp 445-52, 467-72.
  6. ^ Bonatz, Dominik; Kühne, Hartmut; Mahmoud, As'ad (1998). Rivers and steppes. Cultural heritage and environment of the Syrian Jezireh. Catalogue to the Museum of Deir ez-Zor. Damascus: Ministry of Culture. OCLC 638775287. 
  7. ^ Joseph Gutmann, "The Dura Europos Synagogue Paintings and Their Influence on Later Christian and Jewish Art" Artibus et Historiae 9'.17 (1988), pp. 25-29. Gutmann concluded that in their brief visible career the paintings had not had an appreeciable effect on later paintings.
  8. ^ Simon James, from his webpage [1].
  9. ^ J.L. Teicher, "Ancient Eucharistic Prayers in Hebrew (Dura-Europos Parchment D. Pg. 25)" The Jewish Quarterly Review New Series 54.2 (October 1963), pp. 99-109.
  10. ^ Hopkins, p. 200
  11. ^ cf. Francis 1975b, p. II.424f.
  12. ^ Hopkins, p.201
  13. ^ Cumont 1975, p. 184.
  14. ^ Rostovtzeff, qtd. by
    Francis 1975a, p. I.183, n. 174.
  15. ^ Francis 1975a, p. I.183, n. 174.
  16. ^ The description of the fall is heavily dependent on Clark Hopkins, "The Siege of Dura", The Classical Journal, 42/5 (1947), pp. 251-259.
  17. ^ Buried Soldiers May Be Victims of Ancient Chemical Weapon, LiveScience
  18. ^ Ancient Persians 'gassed Romans', BBC NEWS
  19. ^ Earliest Chemical Warfare - Dura-Europos, Syria
  20. ^ Fondazione Benetton Studi e Ricerche


  • Dirven, L.A. 1999 The Palmyrenes of Dura-Europos : a study of religious interaction in Roman Syria (Leiden: Brill).
  • Hopkins, C., 1979 The Discovery of Dura Europos, (New Haven and London).
  • Rostovtzeff, M.I., 1938. Dura-Europos and Its Art (Oxford University Press).
  • Cumont, Franz; Francis, Eric David, ed., trans. (1975), "The Dura Mithraeum", in Hinnells, John R., Mithraic studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, Manchester UP, pp. I.151–214 .
  • Francis, Eric David (1975b), "Mithraic graffiti from Dura-Europos", in Hinnells, John R., Mithraic studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, Manchester UP, pp. II.424–445 .

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