Twopenny Press will soon be able to present The Story of Dura Europos. (Find information on the left above about this fabulous ruined site in eastern Syria close to the border with Iraq )
CHAPTER TWOBreasted believed that the Dura wall paintings were of vital importance to understanding the development of Byzantine art. There could be no doubt, he said, that the mural paintings in the ‘so-called pagan temples of Syria’ provided the models for the wall paintings of the Christian churches in the same region. The successors of the artists who painted the Bithnanaia frescos would have simply adapted their style to produce the paintings of the Virgin Mary, the saints and the God of the Christians. The cultural links between the Orient and later Europe, said Breasted, were obvious: 'The reader who will examine the mosaics from the church of San Vitale at Ravenna and compare them with the largest of the Dura wall paintings, will not long be in doubt that we have in these Dura paintings a part of the heretofore lost oriental ancestry of Byzantine art.'
Fabulous graffiti, in overwhelming number and dating back, in particular, to the period of the Parthians in Dura from around 113 BCE to 164 CE, were found scratched on the plastered walls of private houses. In one, a youthful Parthian horseman lets fly an arrow. The horse looks as if it is very much enjoying itself, smiling even, as it flies seemingly through the air or dances over the ground. The flying gallop was a favourite motif of the Persians. The slim and slight archer is cool and focused, effortlessly balanced on his horse. He is clamped onto his seat by his iron leg muscles. He is completely relaxed and unperturbed. Horse and man appear almost as one, united in body and spirit.
Until the permanent living quarters were built, the tents were erected inside the citadel with the openings looking over the cliff to the view beyond. The arches of the half-buried gates were turned into a dining room and study and the instruments and finds were stored in one of the roofless towers. The kitchen was installed in another. It was a ‘magnificent’ campsite, Hopkins wrote, from where they watched the sun rise across the river plain as they got up to begin the day. The moon was the only source of light at night, ‘except for the winking bonfires of the Arabs in the plain below the cliff.’
Nebuchelus sold simply everything his customers could want: a vast range of merchandise, textiles, clothes, fine wines, spice, perfumes, jewellery and more. He was a mover and shaker offering a fast and efficient import and export service. He also operated as a pawn broker and as a money lender. Reading the stars and working out people’s horoscopes was a speciality. If anything of importance was happening in or around the city, people rushed to Nebuchelus to tell him all about it – and he wrote it up on the wall to let others know the news. Nebuchelus’ marvellous shop was indeed the place to go on the cardo. It was an emporium of delight, conversation, news and information in Dura Europos in the middle of the third century CE.
Hopkins joined in the digging. As they dug down in front of the arch and the supporting columns against the west wall, part of the earth against the north wall collapsed to reveal a group of small figures in what appeared to be a boat and two figures in the foreground standing in the water. Next to it was a scene of a man lying on a bed. A god, apparently in a cloud, hovered overhead. A third man with a bed on his back was walking away. Hopkins and his team had struck gold. They had located the earliest dated Christian house of worship in the world.
CHAPTER SEVENPeople came rushing from all sides, running even faster when they saw the bright colours of the paintings, which were clearly visible even from a distance. They stood together in silence, taking in the scene. They still did not know what sort of building had been uncovered. What was the meaning of this picture of an open gate leading out of a walled city? Who was the imposing man with a rod in his hand leading a host of people away from the fortress walls of a city? Between the man's feet was an inscription just visible in Aramaic. Du Mesnil slowly read it out aloud: 'Moses, when he went out from Egypt and cleft the sea'.
The sixth century BCE prophet Ezekiel, sitting in exile by the waters of Babylon, was tormented by his memories of Solomon's Temple filled with every form of creeping things and abominable beasts and all the idols of the house of Israel. Yet his vision of the second temple to come included the cherubim. They had two faces, one being that of a man and the other that of a young lion. So even Ezekiel accepted representations of living creatures that were made for decorative purposes and not for worship.
They were working south of Tower 2 when they unearthed part of a stone slab. It was immediately evident that it was a fragment of a large inscription stone. The letters ‘SOLIS INV’ were clearly legible. Two days later, digging between Tower 24 and the later Roman Tower 23, the base of a column was found, still in its original place, with a splendid inscription dedicated to the sun god himself still intact. It was, indeed, a Temple to Mithras.
The temples continued to be built. Were they important, as Carl Kraeling suggested, because the population felt insecure as the world spinning around them seemed to be on the verge of collapse? In these final seasons, the discovery of a host of places of worship completed the picture of Dura Europos as a multi-faith city where people were free to worship whichever god they chose in whatever way they wished and where the gods were often interchangeable and shared. The holy houses tolerated each other and co-existed together, some literally side by side. There was, seemingly, room for all in tolerance and harmony.
Their only chance was to make the city as impregnable as they could. Planning and preparations are likely to have begun almost as soon as the Sassanians had disappeared over the river. The job was huge and would have required considerable manpower and time to do. There was a lot to be done: the construction of tons of mud-bricks that would be needed to strengthen the fortifications, planning for the food supplies that would be vital to get through a lengthy siege and making sure that all the equipment was working to hoist water into the city.
The discoveries at Dura Europos were a shock to the system, a challenge, presenting different sets of facts on the ground. Boundaries moved, perceptions and beliefs had to shift. These two buildings were not the safe old temples of the classical world. Here was a Jewish synagogue, the like of which had never been seen before, and the earliest painted Christian place of worship ever found. Comfortable complacencies were upset. Ideas, theories, beliefs, books, all had to be reconsidered and revised.
The British archaeologist, Leonard Woolley, began excavations in Ur in 1922 and ended them in 1934. In many ways, the two digs complemented each other. Both turned up sensational finds which challenged, changed and connected ideas about historical origins. At the city level, the Durenes might well have been startled to find so many aspects of the fabulous Sumerian city of Ur so very familiar.