A Brief History

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Historical Background

The ancient site of Dura-Europos is situated on the western bank of the Euphrates river, not far from the village of Salihiyah in modern Syria. First called “Europos”, the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire founded the city around 300 BCE. Later, it was controlled successively by the Parthian Empire (2nd century BCE-later second century CE), and the Roman Empire (from the later second century CE), and known to inhabitants as “Dura” (the fortress) thanks to its role in frontier defense. The hyphenated name is a modern construct that reflects the city’s historical and cultural complexity.

In the 250s CE, the site was threatened by a series of Sasanian Persian campaigns. Attempting to shore-up the city’s defences in advance of attack, Roman soldiers garrisoned at Dura constructed a massive earthen embankment to reinforce the vulnerable western wall.  In a move that would prove fateful for the site’s exceptional archaeological preservation, buildings in the vicinity of the west wall–including a Christian church, a Jewish synagogue, and various pagan temples that attest to the city’s ethnic and cultural diversity–were requisitioned and filled with earth and debris. What was at the time a highly destructive process, in fact created (together with the hot, dry climate) the conditions for the site’s extraordinary degree of preservation.

Thanks to these highly unique circumstances, large sections of rare mural painting, and hundreds of objects made from organic materials survive at Dura-Europos. For this reason, the site provides unparalleled glimpses into the multicultural, religiously diverse frontier life, and the running of a military garrison with coexisting soldiers and civilians.  

Excavation History

The history of European intervention at the site began in 1920 when British troops stationed at Salihiyeh (Syria) under the command of captain M.C. Murphy recognized well-preserved ancient wall paintings in the northwest corner of the fortress. Recognizing the potential historical significance of the find, Murphy reported it to his superiors and requested assistance from an archaeologist. Murphy’s letter would ultimately set in motion the large-scale excavation of the site. In Spring of 1920, eminent archaeologist James Henry Breasted of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute happened to be on a survey expedition on the upper Tigris river. Upon the conclusion of his planned work, Breasted was persuaded by British Civil Commissioner Colonel Arnold Talbot Wilson to make a diversion to Salihiyeh to assess the finds reported by Murphy.

Due to the unstable political situation of the time, Breasted had only the space of a day’s time to assess and record what he could of the wall paintings discovered by Murphy and his soldiers. Although Breasted would later go on to publish based on his short-term work at the site, he passed on the opportunity to direct renewed excavations at the site two years after his initial visit to assess the paintings. The first systematic excavations at Dura-Europos took place in 1922 and were sponsored by the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Letres. As head of the French Académie excavations at the fortress, Belgian archaeologist and historian Franz Cumont led two short campaigns (1922 and 1923) before the political situation in the Euphrates region precluded further work.

It was not until 1928 that systematic excavations would resume at Dura, this time as an effort sponsored jointly by the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Letres and Yale University. Yale’s involvement came about thanks to interest in the site from Yale professor of Ancient History and Archaeology Michael I. Rostovtzeff. The joint French-American expeditions would continue for ten seasons of excavation between 1928 and 1937. Rostovtzeff remained a constant as expedition director throughout Yale’s involvement at Dura, while the position of field director passed successively from Frenchman Maurice Pillet (1928–31), to Clark Hopkins of Yale (1932–35), and finally to Frank E. Brown, also of Yale (1936–37).

Thanks to the practice of ‘partage’ that was current among archaeological collaborators in the early 20th century, the majority of artifacts from Dura today reside in collections at Yale University and the National Museum of Damascus (established 1919). Due to the importance of the site, however, over time smaller groups of Durene objects have made their way into collections across the world.

Click here to see a list of collections and their associated Durene object counts.

Following a hiatus of nearly 50 years, systematic archaeological work began once again in 1986 under the auspices of the Mission Franco-Syrienne de Doura-Europos (MFSED). Formed to undertake re-examination of previously excavated areas, new excavations, and preservation efforts, MFSED was founded by Pierre Leriche and Assad Al Mahmoud and established with the cooperation of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities and Museums. The Franco-Syrian commission’s work on the site was forced to terminate in 2011 with the outbreak of armed conflict in Syria. Since 2011, extensive illicit digging and intentional destruction has been documented at Dura.

Learn more about the history of Dura-Europos and Yale’s role in its excavation here:

Read in more detail about the history of excavations at Dura-Europos:

  • Baird, J.A. 2018. Dura-Europos, Bloomsbury, p. 1-16.
  • Brody, Lisa. 2011. “Yale University and Dura-Europos: From Excavation to Installation.” In Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity, 17–32. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.