Dura Europos


... 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 at the end of November 1932 of the synagogue in the ruined city of Dura Europos in the east of Syria near the border with Iraq. By then his Franco-American team of archaeologists had been digging for six seasons at the site which had already been called ‘the Pompeii of the east’ because of the marvellous discoveries that had been made there. The site of the Greek Macedonian city of Dura Europos had been known about for a long time from literary sources. The Assyrians, whose civilisation collapsed in 612 BCE, may have first made use of the prominent escarpment that rose over the west bank of the River Euphrates in Mesopotamia. The city of Dura Europos was established there in the third century BCE by the Macedonian general and Master of Babylonia, Seleucus 1, who came from Europos in Macedonia and was the founder of the Seleucid empire. Dura means ‘fortress’ and it was indeed a fortified city, bounded on two sides by deep ravines, on a third by the river and on the fourth side, which faced west into the desert, by mighty walls and towers of thick mud brick and stone. The Macedonians built Dura Europos 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, Dura's 'twin' city, and Homs to the Mediterranean.


The Hellenistic city was an outpost bordering a clutch of kingdoms in unsettled times. It became an ethnic melting pot. Greeks, Palmyrenes, Romans, Persians, Christians and diaspora Jews lived and worked side by side. Dura Europos was 250 miles north of Nehardea, a centre of Babylonian Jewry. In 140 BCE, the city was conquered by the Parthians, Iranian semi-nomads who came from the southeast of the Caspian Sea. Dura was then passed backwards and forwards between the Romans, the Parthians and the Sasanians, who came from south west Persia, and it was the latter who finally destroyed Dura Europos in 256 CE, possibly because of a revolt by the inhabitants. The desert and mud closed over the city and it literally disappeared for more than 1,600 years. As the information in the Damascus Museum puts it: ‘The city standed out of mind till the British army entered the Syrian land in 1920.’ It was Captain M C Murphy who discovered wall paintings in the remains of a building in the north western corner of the site while his detachments of sepoys were digging trenches. He was struck by the state of preservation of the paintings which were in vivid red, yellow and black. The building turned out to be a temple dedicated to three Palmyrene military gods. Major excavations got underway in 1928 and a city of many peoples and religions began to emerge. At least five languages were used in ancient Dura Europos, Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Hebrew and Pahlavi, the written language of Parthians and Sasanians.

The finds were extraordinary. Apart from the stunning panorama of the battlements, gates, towers and walls that form the western edge of the city, the archaeologists located sixteen temples variously dedicated to Greek, Roman and Palmyrene gods, as well as a Christian 'church' in a private house south of the Great Gate. The House of the Christians was the earliest dated that has so far been found.  A plaster fragment dated to CE 232 revealed that the murals were painted three quarters of a century before Constantine recognised Christianity in 312 CE. Just up the road from the Christian House was a Mithraeum. In the Tower of the Archers overlooking a ravine, parchments were found confirming that Greek and Macedonian settlers had laid out the city. Among the items that were found was a Roman wooden shield with a leather cover. This was decorated with a picture of a ship with a list of military stations from the Black Sea to Syria written beside it - an early travel diary by a legionary soldier. Graffiti found scrawled on the wall of a house recorded that in 238 CE: ‘The Persians descended upon us.’ (On this occasion, it was merely a raiding party of Ardashir 1 who was busy founding his Sasanian empire.) Coins found came from mints in Phoenicia, Syria and Mesopotamia. The skeletons of a small party of men were unearthed inside the city walls. They had been suffocated when a tunnel collapsed during the final siege of the city. It was impossible to tell whether they were inhabitants of the city or the attacking Persians.

  They were fabulous finds indeed, but it was the discovery of the synagogue, north of the Great Gate and close to the House of the Christians, which made archaeologists and art historians sit up. Clark Hopkins described the moment:

  ...I clearly remember when the foot of fill dirt still covering the back wall was undercut and fell away, exposing the most amazing succession of paintings! Whole scenes, figures and objects burst into view, brilliant in colour, magnificent in the sunshine. Though dwarfed against the vast backdrop of the sky and the tremendous mass of the embankment, they seemed more splendid than all else put together ... All I can remember is the sudden shock and then the astonishment, the disbelief, as painting after painting came into view ... A casual passer-by witnessing the paintings suddenly emerging from the earth would have been astonished. If he had been a Classical archaeologist, with the knowledge of how few paintings had survived from Classical times, he would have been that much more amazed. But if he were a biblical scholar or a student of ancient art and were told that the building was a synagogue and the paintings were scenes from the Old Testament, he simply would not have believed it. It could not be; there was absolutely no precedent, nor could there be any. The stern injunction in the Ten Commandments against the making of graven images would be sufficient to prove him right.

  But it was, and they were. The walls of the synagogue were painted with many Old Testament scenes, even though Jewish law forbids the representation of living creatures. Images of animals and people had been found on Jewish remains before but they could not be compared with the scale of the paintings in the Dura Europos synagogue. There was Moses before the burning bush, smiting the rock and leading the Israelites out of Egypt. An inscription in Aramaic explained: ‘Moses, when he went out from Egypt and cleft the sea.’ Other panels showed the capture and return of the Ark from the Philistines, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, Aaron, Jacob lying asleep while angels climbed the ladder and Samuel anointing David. There were panels featuring Queen Esther and Mordecai, and Elijah reviving the widow's son: in short, the major events and leading figures in the Old Testament, all painted in vibrant reds, blacks, greens and yellows and decorated with geometric designs and fruit and floral motifs. The roof was also highly decorated and painted with female heads, birds, fruit, fish, running gazelles and centaurs. It was and still is a unique find.

The synagogue had been built in a private house north of the Great Gate. The Christian chapel was close by within a private house in the same street to the south. The archaeologists found an inscription in Greek commemorating the building of the synagogue by Samuel b. Idi, elder of the Jews, with the help of several members of the congregation. An Aramaic inscription gave a date of 243/244 CE. The dating helps to explain the bold use of human figures in the pictures. There were no signs of human representation or living creatures on the walls of an earlier synagogue found underneath. From around the second century CE onwards, during the period when Jewish law was being codified in the Talmud, animals and human representation appeared in Jewish art from Tunisia to Italy and eastwards to the Euphrates. The more liberal rabbis wanted to escape from the rigid interpretation of the injunctions in Exodus and the experimental winds blew all the way to Dura Europos. The Jewish congregation there could also have been influenced by the general mood of Dura Europos itself. Excavations revealed that most of the private and public buildings were beautifully painted and decorated. Dura Europos was apparently a liberal and eclectic city. This makes it more understandable that pagan figures, forms and symbols were intermingled with the scenes from the Old Testament on the walls of the synagogue. The figures are largely depicted wearing Greek or Persian dress including Parthian riding trousers. The inscriptions are in Greek and Aramaic. It is all a glorious blend of Hellenistic and Oriental art.

Hardly before the paint on the last panel in the synagogue had dried, Sasanian Persians threatened the city and the decision was taken to strengthen the defences. This meant the filling in with mud of all the buildings along the city wall. They included the chapel and the synagogue. The glowing colours of the paintings disappeared under an earth embankment where they remained undisturbed and preserved for nearly seventeen centuries. When Clark Hopkins and his team made their astonishing discovery in 1932, they saw the synagogue's painted walls almost through the eyes of the third-century artists.

The paintings on plaster were carefully cut away from the mud brick walls, the gorgeous roof of baked tiles was dismantled and the whole was transported across the desert 300 miles away to Damascus where the synagogue was reconstructed. The national museum of Syria was built in 1934 around the synagogue which is still its centrepiece today. It is highly prized by the Syrians. A copy went to Yale University in the US.

Penny Young would be obliged if anybody wishing to reproduce this in any way would contact her via this site. The full story of Dura Europos, the discoveries and the controversy that ensued, is told in her book, Dura Europos A City for Everyman now available. See the BUY THE BOOK section.