Category: History

Doura Europos

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the English and French governments carved out their spheres of influence in the Middle East, often battling local Arab groups who fought for autonomy after centuries of foreign domination. During one such battle in April 1920, in the desert of Eastern Syria, Indian troops under British command dug defensive trenches along an earth-covered wall. Astonishingly, they uncovered ancient Syrian wall paintings. In the midst of battle, the soldiers had unwittingly discovered what would turn out to be a site of considerable archaeological and historical significance: the ancient city of Doura Europos. Subsequent excavations by Franz Cumont (1922–23) and by M. Rostovtzev (1928–37) yielded artifacts, ruins and remains that provided a wealth of new information on everyday life in the ancient Middle East.

Doura Europos (also Dura Europos) is located in Syria, near Dayr az-Zawr (_Deir Ezzor/Deir-ez-Zor_), overlooking the Euphrates river, and protected on three sides by cliffs and steep wadis. From this defensive position (Doura is an Old Semitic word meaning “fortress”), Doura Europos functioned variously as a military colony, a caravan city and a frontier fortress over its approximately 600 year history. Doura Europos was a typical Hellenistic city, organized on a grid, and housing a cosmopolitan population of (variously, depending on the time period) Syrians, Mesopotamians and other Arabs, plus people of Greek and Persian descent, Roman provincial soldiers, and Jews. It is the site of the first known place of Christian worship in Syria; the walls of what was originally an ordinary residence were covered with depictions of Biblical scenes, some of which now reside at Yale University. Fresco]es depicting Exodus, taken from the wall of a 2nd century AD synagogue are displayed at the Damascus National Museum. Ironically, these antiquities were saved from destruction by the Persian-Roman conflict that threatened them, when the Romans buried portions of the city in anticipation of a Persian siege.

Originally a Babylonian town, Doura was taken over and rebuilt as a military colony about 300 BC by the Seleucids; founding is attributed to Seleucus I Nicator, or one of his generals. In Seleucus I’s honor, the city was named Europus, after his native city in Macedonia (the double appelation is a modern usage; contemporaneous people would have used either one name or the other). In 141 BC Parthians overtook the Doura Europos, absorbing it into the Arsacid Parthian empire. During the period of peace between the empires of Rome and Parthia, the city flourished as a center of manufacture and trade. Romans captured Doura Europos in 165 AD, strengthening fortifications against the threat of Sassanian Persian attack. Less than a century later, 256 AD, Persian troops broke through the city’s defenses and finally destroyed it forever.

One of the most remarkable discoveries to come out of the of the Doura Europos excavation is evidence of an underground battle between Persian and Roman forces. The Persians dug several mines under the walls of Doura Europos, which the Romans attempted to counteract by digging a countermine. The two forces met and fought underground and the Persians defeated the Romans, then set fire to the mine to bring down the city wall. When it was excavated, the countermine was discovered to contain the remains of Roman soldiers; their armor and coins they carried on their persons aided archaeologists in dating both the battle and the final days of Doura Europos.

Sources:
Syria Gate www.syriagate.com
Encyclopaedia Britannica www.britannica.com
Simon James, School of Archaeology & Ancient History, The University of Leicester http://www.le.ac.uk/archaeology/stj/dura.htm

© 2001-2006, originally published Aug 14, 2001