Dura Europos in Syria was founded by Alexander’s lieutenant, Seleucus Nicator. The town was closely linked with Palmyra, serving as an important forward line of defense against Persians. It was captured and destroyed by the Sassanids in 256 AD shortly before the fall of the Syrian Metropolis itself.
The site did not attract significant attention until 1921, when mural paintings were discovered, notably synagogue frescoes dating from 235 AD which were in a remarkable state of preservation.
From Web syllabus for History of Western Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh
Home Worship of the Early Christians
In the 1920’s archaeologists working in present-day Syria uncovered in the desert sands a Roman garrison town, Dura Europos; once located at the edge of the Persian empire of the Sassanids.
In 256 A.D. the Persians laid siege to the town. The desperate inhabitants attempted defend their town by piling mounds of dirt against the walls. In doing so, houses next to the west wall were buried and thus preserved for the archaeologist who uncovered them, almost 1700 years later.
The archaeologist discovered that three of the covered homes had been renovated for use as religious buildings. One had become a Mithraeum, dedicated to the worship of the god Mithras. Another had undergone structural modifications to become a Jewish synagogue. The third home had been converted to a Christian church. This Christian church is especially important as it is the earliest complete church extant.
Inside the house church at Dura Europos
Fresco detail: The healing of the Paralytic. Click to enlarge…
An examination of the remains yields much about the liturgy of the early Christian church.
A typical Roman upper class house was centered around a columned courtyard with an open room caled the atrium. In the center of the courtyard was a pool or impluvium. At the opposite end from the entrance was a raised area tablinum containing a table and used by the family as a reception area and for ceremonial functions.
In the Dura Europos home converted to a church, scholars speculate that the congregation gathered around the pool, which was used for baptism. In the tablinum sat the bishop, who presided over the Eucharist, celebrated at the table. This arrangement provides a logical basis for the liturgical arrangement of later basilica churches.
Fragments of parchment scrolls with Hebrew texts have also been unearthed at Dura Europos; they resisted meaningful translation until J.L. Teicher pointed out that they were Christian Eucharistic prayers, so closely connected with the prayers in the Didache that he was able to fill lacunae in the light of the Didache text.
In 1933, among fragments of text recovered from the town dump outside the Palmyrene Gate, a fragmentary text (Dura Parchment 24) was unearthed from an unknown Greek harmony of the gospel accounts. It was comparable to Tatian’s Diatessaron, but independent of it.