DURA EUROPOS

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The double name of this great caravan station on the Euphrates river, while recalling its pre-Hellenistic founding in Akkadian duru = wall, also evokes its acquisition by the Macedonian Seleucus I Nicator who, “founding” the city no later than 312 BC, gave to it the name of his native town, “Europos.” The project of the Seleucid sovereigns to Hellenize their reign is reflected in the layout of Dura Europos, which is similar to that of Antioch, Apamea and Laodicea.

Falling into the hands of the Parthians shortly after 128 BC, the city, an outpost on the border of the Parthian kingdom, was increasingly militarized, though it continued to be an important commercial center. When Mesopotamia became a Roman province, Dura Europos became the object of dispute between the Parthian kingdom and the Roman Empire. It was only in AD 165 under the emperor Lucius Verus that it came into Roman possession, who stationed there the 20th cohort of the Palmyran auxiliaries.

With the emergence of the neo-Persian Sassanid kingdom AD 227, Dura Europos grew in importance as a Roman fortification. Nevertheless, in 256 it fell to the Persian Sapor I, who besieged and destroyed it. In 272 the city was definitively abandoned until nearly three centuries later, when Justinian, fighting against the Persians, fortified it. Whereas written sources tell us very little about the Christian history of Dura Europos, we are learning much of primary importance from the archaeological evidence. Extremely significant was the finding, in an urban center as reduced as it was, of 20 different churches, with altars, reliefs, paintings and inscriptions evidence of religious fervor, and of the different faiths that coexisted in the city.

The first traces of the Christian presence at Dura Europos go back to the first decades of the 3rd c. During these years ca. 232 a private house was used as a church domus ecclesiae, which accords with the climate of religious tolerance promoted by Alexander Severus 222–235. This site in Dura Europos is the oldest place of Christian worship, and the only one we know of set up in a private house. It consisted of a large meeting room and a baptistery. The baptistery room was embellished by frescoes that have been transferred to the Yale Gallery in New Haven USA. They are the oldest known Christian paintings, and depict the salvation of the neophytes through baptism.


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