Dura Europos

Findings at a desert site in eastern Syria shed light on pagan, Jewish and early Christian religions.

Painting on the wall of the synagogue. Photo by the author‘The habit of regarding history as beginning with Greece has become so fixed that it is not easily to be changed.’ Thus wrote the American archaeologist, James Henry Breasted, in 1916. It was Breasted who coined the phrase, ‘the Fertile Crescent’ to describe the great arc of land that stretches from Egypt around the shore of the eastern Mediterranean through Palestine and Syria and down to Mesopotamia, ‘between the rivers’ of the Tigris and Euphrates. 

Just over a decade later, in 1930, Breasted stood in the Syrian desert gazing in great excitement at some wall paintings that had been uncovered in a ruined citadel on a promontory overlooking the Euphrates. The pictures showed people worshipping their gods in temples. Breasted was overwhelmed by the style and positions of the figures and the context of the religious scenes in which they appeared. Here, he wrote, were the mural paintings in the ‘so-called pagan temples of Syria’ that had provided the models for the wall paintings of early Christian churches. This was the evidence to convince the world of the strength of ancient cultural links between the East and the West.

When, in November 1932, the mud fell off the walls of a synagogue in the lost Seleucid city of Dura Europos – for that is what the ‘citadel’ turned out to be – revealing scenes of the lives, exploits and deeds of the kings, prophets and leaders in the Old Testament, the amazement of Breasted and his fellow archaeologists reached new heights. These paintings were the prototypes for the Christian paintings in the catacombs of Rome. Shortly before, a house with a large baptismal font had been discovered nearby, the earliest dated Christian ‘church’ to have been found. The walls of the baptistery were painted with figures from both the Old and New Testaments. They were sketchy and amateurish, compared with the confident artwork in the Jews’ House of Assembly. One scene included the earliest known depiction of Jesus Christ. These discoveries were crowned by the unearthing of a Mithraeum on the same street (all three were built along the city’s western walls). Mithraism was the most popular religion throughout the Roman Empire before Constantine adopted Christianity. The Dura temple is the easternmost Mithraeum to have been found. The two bas-reliefs presenting the ritual scene of Mithras killing the bull were still intact and in place inside the sacred niche. The building had escaped the destruction of Mithraea throughout the Christian Roman Empire in the fourth century. 

The rich findings at Dura Europos may have had something to do with the mix of people occupying the city – the population was estimated at between 6,000 and 8,000. Dura was founded by Macedonian Seleucids around 312 BC, possibly on the site of an Assyrian fort. It was later occupied by the Parthians and the Romans, whose soldiers were almost certainly local Semites. The city lasted just over half a century before it was besieged and destroyed by the Persian Sassanians in AD c.256. 

The citizens appear to have been multilingual, articulate, artistic and god-fearing. They covered the walls of their houses and numerous temples with paintings, drawings, prayers and graffiti. The historian, Michael Rostovtzeff, who participated in the excavations, remarked: ‘As regards drawings, Dura is the richest of the excavated cities of the ancient world, including Pompeii.’

Yet Pompeii has remained a household name throughout the world, whereas Dura Europos is practically unknown. There is no big permanent exhibition showcasing the artefacts and discoveries from Dura anywhere in the world, except in Damascus.

There are several reasons for this. Dura is situated in the middle of nowhere in the eastern Syrian desert, close to the border with Iraq. Only the most intrepid of tourists have journeyed to see it. The current crisis in Syria will have prevented any tourism for the foreseeable future. In any case, everything that was left after the Sassanian invasion was removed during the excavations. Most of the finds went to Yale University. Unfortunately, the paintings inside the Christian baptistery were badly damaged during attempts to preserve them, though there are excellent photographs of the originals and reconstructions. The painted walls of the synagogue were packed up and taken in lorries across the desert where they were reconstructed to form part of the new National Museum of Syria. As Mary Beard has pointed out, the frescoes discovered at Pompeii gave ‘a first glimpse’ of a lost tradition of painting dating back to Greek artists of the fifth and fourth centuries BC. This was positive confirmation of what was already believed to be true. By contrast, the discovery of the synagogue in Dura Europos upset preconceived ideas about the roots of Christian art. The art historian, Joseph Gutmann, noted that the discovery successfully challenged stereotyped and well-established scholarly theories: the synagogue at Dura was the first major Jewish artistic monument ever to be unearthed and it contained the earliest known significant continuous cycle of biblical images. Figural decoration of similar complexity had not appeared in Christian art until the fifth century. Students of ancient history, religion and art had to consider ‘revolutionary implications of great importance’.

There were other ‘problems’. The Mithraeum conjured up the ghost of a faith that the Christian fathers had set out to destroy. This was not easy for the Jews, either. Dura Europos – on the edge of exilic Mesopotamia – was confirmation that one community at least had disregarded the injunctions of the Mosaic Law. Meanwhile, Warwick Ball noted that ‘the world’s very first definitely identified church’ was not found in Palestine or even the urban centres of Damascus and Antioch ‘but in the rather provincial, desert frontier town of Dura Europos on the Euphrates’. 

A 1990s Syrian book about Dura Europos describes it as ‘a melting pot for such cultures as those of the Assyrian, the Greek, the Roman, the Persian and the Palmyrian (sic), making it a living museum for all sorts of cultures, religions and art styles’. The excitement of the original team at the extraordinary discoveries was marred by disappointment at the overall lack of interest they received. They would be horrified at how little is still known about this remarkable city, whose inhabitants lived together in such apparent harmony.

Penny Young’s book, Dura Europos: a City for Everyman, is published by Twopenny Press.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email