Thursday, March 28, 2013


        When first established around 300 B.C., Dura-Europos stood as a Hellenistic settlement created by the Macedonian Greeks. The city, located in the Syrian desert alongside the Euphrates River, remained in service for more than four centuries as first, an extension of the Iranian Parthians followed by a campsite for Roman troops to guard the eastern side of their growing empire. Midway through the third century, however, the grounds were taken over by the invading Persian Sasanians. This annexation left the once flourishing city in ruins, depopulated, and deserted. Over the years to follow, Dura-Europos became nothing but a large area of land buried beneath wind-blown sand and rubble. 

           Dura-Europos, overlooking the Euphrates River (top right)

A view of Dura from the air (Yale University Art Gallery)           
         In April 1920, just after the conclusion of the first World War, a group of British soldiers stumbled across pieces of a mural painting in, what they thought to be, the middle of nowhere. After scraping off excess dirt and grime around the area, the troops realized that they might be standing upon something greater than just a painting left out in the middle of the desert. Archeologists from both France and America were called to the scene to find what would become one of the most famous archeological discoveries of the twentieth century.
         As it turns out, those smaller pieces of paintings were originally from the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods, a large sanctuary on the far northwest edge of the city, and there were many more paintings to be found. By 1928, the primary exploration of Dura-Europos was handed over to Yale University with the collaboration of the French Academy of Inscriptions. One Yale faculty member on the expedition was Mikhail Rostovtzeff, a professor of Ancient History, who recalls the early discoveries in his book, Dura-Europos and its Art. Rostovtzeff writes from his point of view, recalling his reactions to discoveries and the beauty that was lost beneath the dust. In one portion of his book, specifically recalling the paintings found, he states,

        “I may add that at Dura, as at Pompeii, the walls of public and private buildings, whether painted or not, are literally covered with inscriptions and drawings scratched or traced upon them. No excavated city, except once more Pompeii, has yielded these in such numbers and variety” (Rostovtzeff, 3). 

This synagogue wall painting shows Mordechai and Esther,
biblical heroes who rescued the Jews  from the wrath
of the evil Persian Haman. (Yale University Art Gallery)

The Roman god Mithras, as seen in his temple at Dura
(Yale University Art Gallery) 

        Just as the amount of discovered art was great in number, so was the number of discovered buildings, sculptures, and other remnants of ancient architecture. In an article published in ArcheologyA Publication of the Archeological Institute of America,Susan Downey, an Art History professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, spoke to the journalist on the subject matter. She included that the two most interesting finds at Dura, in her mind, were the town’s synagogue and a house church, both of which were constructed under Roman rule. “Dating from the end of the second century, the synagogue is the earliest synagogue we know of, except for the ones in Israel,” Downey says.

        “Originally part of a house, the synagogue also had a “Hall of Assembly,” which may have contained a Torah niche. Interestingly, no artifacts, except for a small papyrus fragment, were found in the synagogue. The assumption is that the people who worshiped there knew that the city was under siege and they took things, like the Torah rolls, out with them when and if they left the city” (Downey, Archeology Magazine 2010).

Dura's Palmyrene Gate 

        Though it went through turmoil during the time of its final conquering and was left in the dust (literally), Dura-Europos still remains to be a location of pure architectural and artistic stability. I know for a fact that I would absolutely love to visit the grounds in Syria to experience just how intact the city still is to this day. The history behind the, now uninhabited, city dates so far back and yet creates such a parallel between the arts, building tactics, and life then and now. Many explorers have ventured to and through Dura, scholars have studied it, and have even written so much about it that the information is nearly endless – and to think… if it hadn’t been for the fortunate discovery of that buried mural, the world may have never known.

Works Cited 

"Dura-Europos." New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 945-
946. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

Hopkins, Clark, and Bernard Goldman. "Foreward/The Paintings." The Discovery of Dura-Europos. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979. Print. 13 Mar. 2013.

Matheson, Susan B. Dura-Europos: The Ancient City and the Yale Collection. New Haven: Yale Univ. Art Gallery. Print. 13 Mar. 2013

Perkins, Ann Louise. The Art of Dura-Europos. Oxford [Eng.: Clarendon, 1973. Print.

Rostovtzeff, Michael Ivanovitch. Dura-Europos and Its Art. Oxford: Clarendon, 1938. Print. 15 Mar. 2013.

Silver, Carly. "Dura-Europos: Crossroad of Cultures." Archaeology Magazine. Dura-Europos: Magazine Archive. 2010. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

"Simon James: School of Archaeological Studies, University of Leicester." Simon James: School of Archaeological Studies, University of Leicester. 5 Sept. 2005. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.

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