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.
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!
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.
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.
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]