Published: February 1, 2011
Lasting not even six centuries, the ancient city of Dura-Europos was a stunning example of a hugely multicultural community whose inhabitants merged and melded with each conquest. The city was established in present-day Syria around 300 BC by Macedonian Greek soldiers of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire as part of a network of sites to gain control of the Middle Euphrates River.
Its position high above the river at the intersection of the east-west caravan trade route and north-south river routes also gave it major importance as a trading center. It was conquered in the Second Century BC by the Parthians, who made it into a fortress on the western edge of their empire. They expanded it into a vital trading post, laid out in a sophisticated grid of streets around a large central agora.
The Romans conquered it in 165 BC and made it an important military garrison on the eastern front of their empire, later fortifying it with towers and a large embankment. Religious architecture flowered under the Romans, although the city retained much of its Greek culture.
In the mid-Third Century, the Sasanians attacked the Romans and the city fell and was abandoned in about 257. The combination of the city’s earthen embankments, the general destruction of the final assault and shifting desert sands over the centuries worked to the advantage of future archaeologists.
The city was buried completely and remained undisturbed until 1920, when Indian troops under British command encamped in the area after the end of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Turkish Empire dug defensive trenches along the walls of the ancient city and made the astonishing discovery. Because they had been so securely hidden for nearly two millennia, the ruins were stunningly well preserved.
An American excavation commenced several years after the ruins were found, led by University of Chicago archaeologist (and Yale graduate) James Henry Breasted. Several years later, Belgian scholar Franz-Valery-Marie Cumont engaged in some preliminary excavations for the French Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, followed by the in-depth, ten-year project between 1928 and 1937 by scholars from the French Academie and Yale, led by the Russian scholar Mikhail Rostovtzeff of Yale, which made the most significant finds.
Further exploration of the site occurred in the 1980s in a Franco-Syrian project with teams of archaeologists from Syria, Europe and North America.
The excavations revealed the city, the fortress and religious sites. The latter include a large synagogue painted with biblical scenes, one of the earliest Christian house churches with a chapel and the earliest known baptistry, and a Mithraeum, where practitioners of the secret religion Mithraism worshipped. There were also other religious shrines around the city where others worshipped. Military objects and articles of daily life shed light on the prevailing professional and social systems. The carvings and paintings from the site attest to an exceptional aesthetic on the part of artists and the citizenry.
A selection of Roman artifacts excavated in the 1920s and 1930s digs is now on view in “Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity” at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College. They are from the cache of more than 12,000 objects from the dig in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Parchment and papyri fragments and carved inscriptions from the site illustrate a complex and cosmopolitan population of about 10,000 to 15,000 in the Second Century, where the spoken languages included Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Parthian, Middle Persian, Hebrew and Safaitic. Christians, Jews and pagans lived and worshipped side by side. The interaction among the citizens of varied cultures and traditions who lived in or visited the city resulted in the creation of distinctive and sophisticated styles in art, architecture and religion. The 75 objects on view, most of which are from the final phase of Dura-Europos when it was a Roman garrison, include limestone carvings, wall paintings, domestic articles (including a child’s leather shoe) and military and religious artifacts.
“Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity” has drawn on the collaboration of archaeologists, classicists, historians and art historians, linguists and theologians from around the globe. Their extensive study of the artifacts of Dura-Europos resulted in a detailed and scholarly examination of the cultures and society of the people who lived there. The exhibit is a presentation of their findings, through partial reconstructions of the sites of religious worship and the objects themselves, which represent a full spectrum of the religious, artistic and simply utilitarian. The military and the religious are often intertwined; a papyrus, the Feriale Duranum, refers to official military religious festivals.
Early Christian house churches were usually closeted in upper-class Roman houses in Dura-Europos, where worship was discreet, if not altogether secret. The earliest surviving example was dismantled and reassembled at Yale in the 1930s and fragments from it are on view. The house would have been built around a courtyard with an atrium with a central pool used for baptisms. A raised area with a table served as a reception area for the household and for ceremonial events celebrated by a bishop. The baptistry would have been the most elaborate and important room. Three of about 14 religious narrative images from the baptistry, the earliest images of Christ †Christ Walking on Water, the Healing of the Paralytic and the Procession of Women †are on view. The images had faded considerably since they were discovered, but have been restored for the exhibition.
The Jewish synagogue at Dura-Europos, dated to 244, was arranged with a forecourt and a large assembly room. So large was the Semitic community, that it was expanded greatly. It was moved to Damascus in the mid-1930s where was installed at the National Museum. Reconstructions of the synagogue and its paintings were made for the Yale University Art Gallery. The faithful reproductions on view raise interesting questions about the symbolism of its 28 wall paintings of biblical scenes depicting 58 religious scenes, such as the Exodus, the Ark among the Philistines and the battle of Eben-Ezer. They also provoke discussion of the synagogue’s position relative to the development of other synagogues.
The Mithraeum at Dura-Europos, a shrine for the secret religion of Mithraism, differs from most others that have been found because it is the only one built on ground level; most were built underground to replicate the cave where the god Mithras was born. Little is known about the sect because of its secrecy. Graffiti, paintings and sculptures have survived, supplying information about the central tenets of Mithraism, primarily its tauroctomy, the image of Mithras slaying the bull. Only initiated men were permitted to participate in its rituals.
Many other pagan gods were worshipped at Dura-Europos, and shrines to those figures have been discovered. Some shrines did double duty, allowing various deities to be worshipped; others were used by specific groups, such as the Temple of the Gadde, which was used by Palmyrene merchants. Most pagan religions were open to all, whereas the Christian and Jewish sects were more restricted.
Because the city of Dura-Europos was so well situated, it was highly desirable and consequently highly defended and equally contested. Throughout its existence, the military presence loomed large, beginning with its settlement by Macedonian military veterans. Under the Romans, the city boasted military housing, temples to military gods, an amphitheater and practice grounds. When the Sasanians laid siege in 256 and dug mines into the walls, the Romans responded by digging countermines, but the city ultimately fell. Diagrams of these mines and countermines are on view. Evidence presented in early 2009 by Simon James of the University of Leicester in England suggests that the invaders engaged in some chemical warfare that resulted in the death of more than 20 Roman soldiers in the tunnels, perhaps suffocated by fumes used to that end.
Lisa R. Brody, Yale University Art Gallery associate curator of ancient art, co-curator with her colleague Boston College assistant professor of classical studies Gail L. Hoffman, acknowledged the spectacular degree of preservation of the objects on view. She added, “This thematic exhibition brings objects out of the gallery’s storage facilities, many of them newly restored, to show the amazing juxtaposition of culture that existed in this well-preserved, ancient city.”
“Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity” was organized by the Yale University Art Gallery and the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, and is accompanied by a catalog of the same title, which includes 18 scholarly essays and a color plate of each object on display.
“Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity” remains on view through June 5. The McMullen Museum is in Devlin Hall at Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Avenue. For information, 617-552-8100 or www.bc.edu/artmuseum .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm