Dura-Europos, located near the village of Salihiyah in modern Syria, was founded by the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire around 300 B.C. Geographically protected, it is bordered on the east by the Euphrates river plain and on the north and south by deep ravines, leaving only the west side of the city open to attack. This vulnerability was remedied in the second half of the second century B.C. by the construction of a large wall that became one of the city’s salient features.
The crossroads between a major East–West trade route and the trade route that ran along the Euphrates, Dura-Europos was home to a confluence of Eastern and Western civilizations and an extremely multicultural population. Originally called “Europos,” the city later came to be known by local inhabitants as “Dura,” or “the fortress,” because of the strategic military role that it would play in the defense of the Parthian and Roman empires. The hyphenated name is a modern construct, one that conveys the complexity of the city’s historical background and cultural diversity.
During the second century B.C., Dura-Europos was captured by the Parthians, whose huge empire was located just to the east. The Parthians made the city into a fortress to protect their empire’s western border. The Parthian era at Dura-Europos lasted for almost three centuries, but unfortunately very few archaeological artifacts from the period have survived. In the middle of the second century A.D., the city was captured by the Romans and became an important garrison on their empire’s eastern frontier. Much more is preserved from this final phase of the city’s history. Remains of parchment, papyri, and carved inscriptions attest to the numerous languages spoken and understood in ancient Dura-Europos, including Greek, Latin, Palmyrenean, Hebrew, Hatrian, Safaitic, and Pahlavi. The religions that coexisted in the city speak to an equally complex culture, with temples to Greek, Roman, and Palmyrene gods, as well as dedicated places of worship for Christians and Jews.
In the mid-third century A.D., Sasanians besieged the city. In response, the Roman soldiers garrisoned at Dura-Europos attempted to strengthen the western fortification wall with a huge earthen embankment.
The Sasanians then created a complex series of siege mines under the western wall near Tower 19 to destabilize the wall. Recent reanalysis of excavation records suggests that the invaders utilized chemical warfare in their attack, burning naphtha and sulfur to overcome the Roman soldiers. The city was ultimately conquered, around A.D. 256, and subsequently abandoned.
The fact that the site was never reoccupied contributed significantly to the extraordinary level of preservation of the artifacts and architectural remains. The architecture along the western wall that was buried by the embankment was particularly well preserved and even paintings that decorated the interiors were intact. The buried buildings included a synagogue painted with biblical scenes (something thought impossible given the prohibition against figural images in Jewish law); one of the first Christian house-churches, with the earliest-known baptistery; and a place of worship for the mystery religion of Mithraism. Such discoveries fundamentally altered our understanding of religious practice in antiquity.