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Doura Europos

In a marriage of the Mediterranean and the Mesopotamian worlds - fusion of the Semitic and the Aryan-- Doura Europos, an indirect legacy of Alexander the Great, was founded around 300 B.C. by order of Seleucos Nicator I, one of Alexander's surviving generals, on the fertile plain between Deir Ezzor and Abu Kemal, in a place now called Salhiye on the right bank of the great blue-green Euphrates.

To Seleucos fell the Asian domains of the empire, and he named his city "Doura" or "Dura" ("Fortress" or "Walled City") "Europos", his home in Macedonia. It was said that the first inhabitants were in effect his boyhood companions, come to the Eastern outpost to colonize, between 313 and 280 B.C., a bulwark against the increasing strength of the Parthians, who would eventually confront the Romans on this spot.

It would be the Roman clash with the Sassanids, however, in the mid-third century A.D., that would end Doura Europos' five long and productive centuries, its seemingly limitless spiritual, artistic and military success, and the aspirations of a Western culture against the might and the mystique of the East. The site would never again be inhabited.

Doura Europos was discovered in March of 1920 by British troops sent out from their base in Iraq to the Middle Euphrates, to put down a desert revolt. The great brick, stone and adobe enclosure around the seventy-five hectares of rolling land, by this time crumbled and bare, nonetheless revealed the remains of scattered construction, that after archaeological examination appeared to be the ruins of the temple of the Aramaic deity, Bel, greatly influential in Palmyra to the west with whom Doura Europos had sustained an intense and fruitful partnership.

In time fifteen different temples, of the separate cults and sects that flourished while the city thrived, would be unearthed and their remains sifted. The excavations of the Academie Francaise des Inscripciones et Belles Lettres proceeded under the direction of Franz Cumont between 1922 and 1924; the project's findings, though sketchy, the product of limited resources, were published in 1926.

The most spectacular excavations and the most noteworthy finds -- after ten seasons of six months each, from 1928 to 1937-were effected by the Franco-American mission under the auspices of Yale University, directed by Russian archaeologist M.I. Rostovtzeff. The celebrated Preliminary Reports I to X, and the Final Reports published by the team, revolutionized all previous knowledge of Hellenistic architecture, society and history, in effect the nature and character of a highly original culture -originally Greek but no longer Greek at all -- that evolved after Alexander's death and that continued until the Sassanid advance. A Franco-Syrian mission, directed by archaeologists Leriche and el-Mahmoud, took over the work from 1986 to date. Their camp occupies a slope in the site just to the south of the Euphrates Gate.

It was initially assumed that Seleucos personally selected this location, on a broad promontory protected by two wadis or canyons on either side, that drained into the Euphrates, where the river had eroded an embankment on the third side ranging in height from forty to ninety meters, thus serving as natural defenses. Yet extensive archaeological finds -- of pottery, inscribed tablets and clay vessels -- substantiated prior habitation, dating from the Babylonian period. Agriculturally advanced, with sophisticated systems of irrigation and flood control, and trade routes linking it with Mari in the third and second millennia B.C., the site was known then as Damara. And while it had obviously flourished, and certainly boasted a fortuitous situation, by the time it was colonized by Seleucos' Macedonian adventurers, very little, if anything, remained of the earlier settlement.

The Hellenized Doura Europos, following an example attributed to Alexander's father, Philip of Macedon (but presumably initiated, according to regional historians, by the Babylonian engineer Hibou Damous Domilieh) was divided into blocks or squares, all identical, of 35 by 70 meters each, separated by streets of varying length, depending on the undulating topography, the whole transected by two intersecting thoroughfares. Construction sites within the blocks were also identical, measuring three hundred square meters. The only vulnerable approach to this grid-pattern metropolis, along the plateau to the west, was ultimately sealed by the formidable walls, and protected by a number of monumental towers, penetrated only by the Palmyra Gate. A Cardo Maximus, or Straight Street, connected the colossal main portal with the Euphrates Gate at the river embankment to the east, with the green planted fields of wheat, barley, lentils and grapes stretching to the horizon on the opposite shore. The only other access was gained through the South Gate on the wadi to the right.

The city enjoyed almost complete autonomy, perhaps headed by a military commander, since no evidence has ever been found of a People's Council, which would have been consistent with its Greek antecedents. Despite the Syrian majority the city was nevertheless, for all practical purposes, controlled by a Greek minority, by this time with aristocratic pretensions, which imposed its own language and customs; yet as far as is known, the various communities lived in relative harmony, each with its own residential quarter, its temples, baths, fountains, and public buildings. After the first century A.D., however, a Semitic faction, initially mixed but eventually defined in specific groups, effectively pressed the advantage of its growing numbers into a definitive political domination, as revealed in drawings, sculpture and mural painting. Prime example is the astonishing third century mural covering three enormous walls with depictions of the entire Old Testament, discovered in the site and now on display, in a grand hall of its own, in the National Museum in Damascus.

By 247 B.C. the Persians had reengaged the entire Middle Euphrates. The Seleucids, otherwise absorbed in their repeated disputes with the rival Ptolemies in Egypt, were powerless to stave off the Parthian advance. During that period Doura Europos was governed by Ebistats, public councils in the official representation of the king in Ctisiphon. These were charged with civil and judicial administration, political economy, historical documentation and the care of the archives.

When the Romans entered Syria in 64 B.C. the Seleucid domination came to an end and with it the period of Hellenization of the Near East. At that time Doura Europos was in any case under Parthian political jurisdiction, while it remained bound to Palmyra as a trading partner. Although the official policy was one of support for the Greek colonies, for sensible reasons of commercial convenience, the emperor Augustus nonetheless committed Rome to an agreement with the Parthians, prolonging their self-government for more than a century. And with good reason. All testimony, deciphered from inscriptions, parchment or graffiti, verifies Doura Europos' prosperity during the Parthian years, its success in agriculture and caravan traffic, and especially in its continued trade with Palmyra. The frontier outpost was now a major market center in the Parthian heartland.

Parthian hegemony lasted in all more than three centuries, with a two-year parenthesis when Trajan, by this time emperor, decided to take a hand in the military installations in the citadel on the Euphrates, and sent troops to occupy the city from 115 to 117. On Trajan's advice his protégé and successor, Hadrian, continued to maintain a viable relationship with the Persians, though he ordered repairs on the great Citadel, which served as the palace for the military governor. This massive complex was isolated from the rest of the city by an interior wadi and protected by enormous fortifications facing the river, which included the "Parthian Palace" right on the embankment. In time, however, Doura Europos came to shed its military bearing. The grandiose Greek fortifications were cannibalized for the repair of the existing temples to Artemisa and Zeus Megistos, and of the agora that filled eight blocks in the heart of the urban center; and the construction of the towers of new temples, to Adonis, Zeus Theos and Zeus Kyrios, as well as to oriental deities Atargatis, Aphlad and Azzanathkona.

With the Roman conquest by Lucius Verus in 165, Doura Europos returned to its role as a military garrison, with lands north of the enclosure included in the Roman camp. Ramparts were repaired or restored. The Palace of the "Dux Ripae" ("Palace of the Roman Commander of the Riverbank") occupied the Citadel, reinventing it as a "Military Temple", so-called, while it incorporated its fortifications into the Euphrates Gate.

The "Strategic Palace" or "First Citadel" -- a complex initially established by the Greeks on a high cliff overlooking the Euphrates, as a residence for the strategos or First Magistrate -- was transformed into the "Redoubt Palace", with its spectacular command of life and traffic on the river.

Another sort of cult began to occupy blocks that had formerly been consigned to parks or public spaces: the dolichenium, the mithraeum, the synagogue, and a discreet Christian church. A number of these were backed up against the western wall, for support and protection from Sassanid raids, since in 199 Septimus Severus, the new emperor, decided to advance against Ctisiphon, thus provoking the Persians while breaking relations on the eastern front, all the time reinforcing the Roman command in Palmyra. Yet when Doura Europos finally gave way to Sassanid siege these were the temples that survived in a remarkable state of preservation, to be discovered in the twentieth century by dumbfounded archaeologists. Rostovtzeff dubbed the site "Pompeii in the Syrian Desert".

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