Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Dura Europos, last stop on the Euphrates

After Deir Ezzor, Rasaffa, and Halabia, I am now heading for Dura Europos, the most southeastern frontier garrison on the Euphrates in Syria. The landscape is as barren as the northeastern desert corner of Jordan and it is hard to imagine that Mesopotamia once was so fertile and consequently so prosperous. Rather suddenly I see a row of sand dunes, but so straight that they must be manmade. And they are indeed for these are drift-sands that accumulated against the walls of Dura Europos, the only original Hellenistic fort in the abovementioned series. Approaching from the land side, it is not obvious to appreciate the unique location as the Euphrates only reveals itself once you have penetrated to the very heart of the city.

Like Apamea and Deir Ezzor, it was founded around 303 BC by Seleucos, one of the generals of Alexander the Great. He wanted to build a reliable control post on the Euphrates, on the trade routes with his newly founded cities of Antioch-on-the-Orontes and Seleucia on the Tigris. He must have remembered the lessons of his master, Alexander.

Being Hellenistic, it is no surprise to see that Dura Europos is set up according to the Hippodamian plan with right-angled streets around the large central Agora. By the end of the second century BC, the city was conquered by the Parthians who stayed till the arrival of the Romans in 165 AD. People of different origins lived in Dura Europos as testified by inscriptions on papyri and parchment written in Greek, Latin, Aramean, Hebrew, Syriac, the language of Hatra, Palmyrene, Persian, and Pahlavi. But I think it is mainly the Macedonians who left their indelible imprint on this place.

The main entrance is through the Palmyra Gate which, although only partially preserved, gives an excellent idea how this stronghold was conceived. The surrounding massive nine meters high ramparts are interrupted by a series of defense towers built, like in Halabia, with the same pink crystal-like gypsum. But it is difficult to get a good overall picture of the site since most of the city is half buried under the sands. Over on the far left however is the area where the Roman military camp from the third century is located, complete with the commander’s palace.

Following the main street in the direction of the Euphrates, I am pointed to the right where most of the sixteen temples were situated, worshiped by Christians and pagans alike. Among them is the oldest synagogue of Jewish origin, dating according to Aramean inscriptions to 244 AD. Every single inch of its walls and ceiling were covered with wonderfully well-preserved frescos depicting scenes of the Last Judgement. Men and animals from the oldest bible stories are illustrated here in vivid images and colorful pictures. The inside of this synagogue has been entirely dismantled and moved to the Archaeological Museum of Damascus which is worth a visit were it only for this synagogue!

Beside the synagogue, there are temples dedicated to Mithras, Baal and Adonis, a proof that Jews, Christians, and pagans lived together in this multicultural city. The first traces of the Mithras Temple go back to the period 168-171, i.e. Roman times, but the wall-paintings clearly show Parthian influences because Mithras wears Parthians trousers, boots, and pointed bonnet. It is known that, although the Mithras cult originated in Iran, this God was very popular with the Romans. More interesting finds were made in other buildings, like mural frescos, inscriptions, military outfits such as painted wooden shields and a complete horse-harness also exhibited at the Museum of Damascus.

At the bottom of these temples, a small museum has been set up and although the best pieces are in Damascus, I’m happy to see the mural marriage ceremony with priests wearing their funny looking Phrygian hat – in fact, a copy of the original in Damascus but here, at least, I’m allowed to take a picture! Interesting also is the graffiti from the Palmyra Gate, enabling a better mental reconstruction.

A last attempt to save Dura Europos was made during the siege of the Persian Sassanids led by King Shapur I in the year 256. The local museum proudly exhibits the copy of a relief from Bishapur, Iran, portraying Shapur in full state riding his horse - a man with presence. He devised a masterly strategy during the siege when he dug tunnels underneath the city walls in order to undermine them. In a desperate attempt to increase their chances of survival, the Romans filled all the buildings and spaces immediately behind the city walls with sand to reinforce them. At the same time, they worked with might and main to fill the Sassanids’ tunnels underneath but there were simply too many corridors and ramifications causing the ultimate defeat of the Romans. This is how Shapur conquered Dura Europos. He razed the city to the ground and sold its population as slaves. Part of the destroyed walls is still visible in the southwest corner. The good news, however, is that thanks to the Roman operation by which all the buildings close to walls were choked with sand, many of them have survived - including the synagogue with its famous frescoes.

Dura Europos was never rebuilt and disappeared from history till it was rediscovered by chance in 1920. Serious excavations started only in 1932 when said frescos from the synagogue were brought to light. It is quite unique that the wall-paintings show animals as well as people, together with a Torah-shrine in the western wall, i.e. the direction of Jerusalem.

Close to the Euphrates one cannot miss the elongated remains of the fine Seleucid Citadel, strategically set on its own outcrop guarding the bend in the river. Such great builders!

Walking back to the Palmyra Gate I believe I recognize a square Bouleuterion, but the only information I can find mentions a Baptisteria on this spot; this square is supposed to be a shallow pool which Christian believers crossed to be baptized. The public was evidently seated on the tiers around.

And then, in January 2009, sensational news from Dura Europos made the headlines as new research confirmed that during the Persian invasion poison gas had been used for the first time in history against the Roman defenders. This conclusion was made based on twenty remains of Roman soldiers that were found at the foot of the city walls. Apparently, the product used was a mixture of bitumen and sulfur crystals that was set afire. Using several bellows and underground chimneys, the gasses were directed towards the enemy. Previous speculations about this technique existed, for instance with the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War (400 BC) and from Chinese texts about warfare (500 BC), but the theory never could be proven till now. Quite unbelievable, isn’t it?

[For more pictures click on the album Cities along the Euphrates]


  1. I think it is sick, sad and a very evil presence in the human race when this kind of things are going on. I had always thought good was stronger then evil but I feel differently now. I wonder how even this goes on and everyone that has the power to do something about it just turn the other cheek and say 'what can I do' There are many that can do something but don't. Get it together I say to those because there is something that ones of the power can do something about. If this history is erased by this greedy selfish destructive action we all soon, all of us on this earth will disappear including those who are doing this destruction.

  2. Sad, but true - unfortunately.