Dura Europos

Dura Europos was a border city, founded about 300BC, built on an escarpment above the right bank of the Euphrates river. In 113 BC, Parthians conquered the city, and it became an important provincial administrative center. The Romans captured Dura-Europos in 165 AD and greatly enlarged it as their easternmost stronghold in Mesopotamia, until it was captured by Sassanians after a siege in 256–57 AD. The population was deported, and after it was abandoned, Dura Europosd by sand and mud and disappeared from sight.

In the aftermath of World War I and the Arab Revolt, British troops explored the ruins. In 1920, a soldier digging a trench uncovered brilliantly fresh wall-paintings in what would prove to be the Temple of Bel. Major excavations were carried out in the 1920s and 1930s.

Of special interest is the Jewish synagogue, the last phase of which was dated by an Aramaic inscription to 244 AD. It is the best preserved of the many ancient synagogues of that era that have been uncovered by archaeologists. It was well preserved due to having been infilled with earth to strengthen the city’s fortifications against a Sassanian assault in 256. The synagogue was uncovered in 1932 by Clark Hopkins, who found that it contains a forecourt and house of assembly with frescoed walls depicting people and animals, and a Torah shrine in the western wall facing Jerusalem. Because of the profuse iconography, it was at first mistaken for a Greek temple.

Jewish icon of Esther before Mordecai
Icon wall in the Jewish synagogue at Dura Europos.
From web syllabus for History of Western Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh.

Icon of Aaron the brother of Moses
Icon of Aaron the brother of Moses.
From the Center for Online Judaic Studies.

Icon wall in the Jewish synagogue at Dura Europos
Icon of Esther brought before Mordecai, at the synagogue of Dura Europos.
From the Judaica Collection at Sterling Memorial Library.

Besides the Jewish synagogue, other homes and buildings along the western wall were filled with earth to strengthen the walls against the attacking Sassanid Persian army. One of these was a Mithraeum, as one would expect in a Roman military town, and another home had been converted to a Christian church. This Christian church is especially important as it is the earliest complete church extant.

Healing of the Paralytic
Fresco detail: The healing of the Paralytic. Read more…

Inside the house church at Dura Europos

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.