Return to Dura Europos

It was like a page from the Arabian Nights. Aladdin’s lamp had been rubbed and suddenly from the dry, brown bare desert had appeared paintings, not just one nor a panel nor a wall, but a whole building of scene after scene, all drawn from the Old Testament in a way never dreamed of before.’

This is how the American archaeologist, Clark Hopkins, described the ‘sensational’ discovery sixty-five years ago this month of the synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria. By then the Franco-American team had been digging for six seasons at the site, which had already earned the sobriquet ‘Pompeii of the East’ because of its marvellous finds.

Dura Europos had been known about for a long time from literary sources. The Assyrians had first made use of the prominent escarpment jutting out over the west bank of the River Euphrates, around 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. The city had been re-established in the third century BC by Nicanor, a general of Seleucus I.

Dura means ‘fortress’ and it was indeed a fortified city, bounded on two sides by deep ravines, on a third by the Euphrates and on the fourth side, which faced west into the desert, by huge walls and towers of mud and stone.

The Macedonians built Dura as a frontier town to control the river trade. Goods including silks, jade, spices, ebony, ivory and precious stones, were brought from the east and transferred onto camels for the desert leg of the journey, via Palmyra, to the Mediterranean.

Dura was an outpost bordering a clutch of kingdoms in unsettled times. It became an ethnic melting pot. Greeks, Byzantines, Persians, Christians and diaspora Jews lived and worked side by side. In 140 BC the nomads of Parthia in the east captured the city, which was then passed backwards and forwards between the Romans and the Sassanians, another Persian people. It was the Sassanians who finally destroyed Dura Europos in AD 256, possibly because of a revolt by the inhabitants.

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