The Dura-Europos baptistryThe Discovery of Dura-Europos

Clark Hopkins, edited by Bernard Goldman

(Yale University Press, 1979) $19.95.

“Once, when I was involved in a train wreck, I had no recollection of the moment between the shock when I was thrown from my seat and when I began to pick myself up from the bottom of the overturned car. So it was at Dura. All I can remember is the sudden shock and then the astonishment, the disbelief ….” Clark Hopkins’ 1932 attack of vertigo was the result of the discovery of the now-famous paintings of the synagogue at Dura-Europos in Syria.

The previous season Hopkins had located a large room on the west side of the ruined city, and determined that its walls had been painted; workmen had removed the fill except for the last foot of earth covering the surfaces on which—they hoped—something might still be preserved.

“Only a few details of that day are still vivid … I clearly remember when the foot of fill dirt still covering the back wall was undercut and fell away, exposing the most amazing succession of paintings! Whole scenes, figures, and objects burst into view, brilliant in color, magnificent in the sunshine, though dwarfed against the vast backdrop of the sky and the tremendous mass of the embankment, they seemed more splendid than all else put together … painting after painting came into view. The west wall faced the morning sun which had risen triumphantly behind us, revealing a strange phenomenon- in spite of having been encased in dry dust for centuries, the murals retained a vivid brightness that was little short of the miraculous.” Colleagues came running from other squares, attracted by the paintings’ bright colors, like flags suddenly raised in the distance of the desert. It was like something out of the Arabian Nights. “Aladdin’s lamp had been rubbed, and suddenly from the dry, brown, bare desert had appeared paintings, not just one nor a panel nor a wall, but a whole building of scene after scene, all drawn from the Old Testament in a way never dreamed of before.”

But the synagogue is only a small part of the Dura story told by Hopkins, who was the assistant director during the second season of excavation (October 1928–March 1929) and field director for seasons five through eight (1931–1935). For readers of BAR, the most interesting finds may be the earliest known Christian chapel (found in the fifth season), and the synagogue (found in the sixth). But the chief importance of this book is nor what it says about either building, but rather Hopkins’ sensitive interpretation of the whole site as he came to know it—as a unity, an entire ancient city.

Dura was founded about 300 B.C. as a fortress; that is what the name Dura means. Its purpose was to protect the trade route and establish military control of the Euphrates River bank and the desert area west of it. The main caravan route ran east from Palmyra in central Syria, through the Great Gate in Dura’s west wall, and down its main street. Then it descended toward the Euphrates via a wadi which cut through the center of the town. The synagogue was found just north of the Great Gate, the Christian chapel just south of it; only a military road separated them from the western wall.

The city was founded by the Seleucids, then conquered by the Parthians late in the second century B.C. The Romans held it briefly two hundred years later, in the early second century A.D., then lost it. Lucius Verus retook Dura about 164 A.D., and Rome controlled the city for the remainder of its lifetime until the Sassanian Persians captured Dura in 256 and ended its existence. During five-and-one-half centuries Dura was formally under Roman control for a little more than 100 years.

Dura was a mix of cultures so complex that in the excavated city no one may be said to dominate. Four strong religious traditions are represented, living in something like tolerance- Greco-Semitic, Mithraic, Jewish and Christian—represented in more than a dozen excavated religious buildings. (Religion apparently played a large part in the life of Dura; I found particularly helpful Hopkins’ comments on the influence of native wives in promoting the local cults and mixing them with religions from outside.) Diversity also appears in the art associated with the buildings in the Temple of Mithras, the paintings are Persian-Parthian, or Iranian. The famous synagogue paintings reflect a Mesopotamian style; the Christian Baptistry reflects the art of Hellenized Syria. Hopkins devotes two chapters to the art—chiefly of the Christian and Jewish buildings. Other chapters give a chronological account of the excavation campaigns. Using archaeological evidence, Hopkins summarizes the city’s history, including an account of the final attacks on Dura. With Hopkins’ help, Dura tells its own history.

Some of the great names of both archaeology and the history of religion are characters in Hopkins’ narrative- J. H. Breasted of the University of Chicago wrote an influential book, Oriental Forerunners of Byzantine Paintings, on the basis of a single day’s work at Dura in 1920 Franz Cumont carried out the first two brief campaigns in 1922 and 1923 (one chapter is devoted to them, and Cumont himself moves in and out of several others). M. I. Rostovtzeff became discouraged at the failure of the newly discovered baptistry to attract the attention and funds of Christian churchmen and scholars. “The Jews,” Rostovtzeff once wrote, “were much more interested in their historic monuments; they appreciate much better the role of history … Find a synagogue,” he suggested, “and we shall gain the acclaim which such startling discoveries really deserve.” Sir Aurel Stein appears navigating across the desert on a camel, finding his way with a prismatic compass and dead reckoning; W. F. Albright, Frank E. Brown, Henry Detweiler, E. R. Goodenough, Carl Kraeling, Hans Lietzmann, Armin von Gerkan and Bradford Welles all play parts in the narrative. Some of the early inter-staff intrigue reads like a page from Agatha Christie; she turns up too, in 1934, with archaeologist husband Max Mallowan, looking for a promising site for excavation, one not overlaid with Byzantine and Roman remains. Two years later she would publish her thriller, Murder in Mesopotamia, dedicated to “my many archaeological friends in Iraq and Syria.”

In one month in 1933, Cumont, Rostovtzeff, von Gerkan, Henri Seyrig and Harald Ingholt were all present on this remote site—along with Eliezer Sukenik, whom Hopkins forgot to mention, perhaps understandably, given the many visitors at that time, the first season after the synagogue’s discovery. Sukenik’s addendum on the synagogue in his Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece (1934), missing from Hopkins’ bibliography, first brought the building to the attention of many Biblical archaeologists. (Other gaps in the bibliography on the synagogue are more serious; for example, there is no reference at all to the important evaluations of Goodenough which Morton Smith and Jacob Neusner published in the 1960’s and 1970’s.)1

There are puzzles and frustrations in abundance at Dura. A bundle of ancient documents found in the fifth season turns to dust before Hopkins’ eyes. “In that dust I could see thin layers or pages—six, eight, ten together—but when I tried to brush or read, they dissolved into nothingness.” The curious acrostic puzzle, a palindrome, reading the same in either direction, is found- ROTAS/OPERA/TENET/AREPO/SATOR. Three examples turn up at Dura, and several more are known from Pompeii and as far away as Roman Britain. But what does it mean? In 1980 there is still no satisfactory solution. And finally there is the double dealing of Armin von Gerkan, who comes to Dura on invitation to study the fortifications, but then goes away to rush into print the first plan of the Christian chapel—though he had never mentioned his interest in that building while on the site.

This is not the one book on Dura; that has yet to be written. Dura is a “visual” site, but for detailed photographs of many items (and for anything in color) the reader must go elsewhere. I particularly missed a full plan of the entire site, which would have provided a graphic outline of what Hopkins was discussing; without the plan the account is occasionally confusing. Nevertheless, this is an indispensable book on Dura, with full bibliography, glossary, and two detailed chronologies—one of the city in its ancient setting, the other of the seasons of excavation. Like Yigael Yadin’s Masada (1966) and G. N. A. Hanfmann’s Letters from Sardis (1972), Hopkins’ book allows the reader to see how an excavation develops, how the principal investigator comes to comprehend—perhaps better than anyone else ever could—the whole small ancient world he slowly exposes. Like Yadin and Hanfmann, Hopkins is readable and exciting. In short, The Discovery of Dura Europos is a book which no one seriously interested in the archaeology, history, religion or art of the Hellenistic period or the Roman Empire will want to miss.

1. Morton Smith, “Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols in Retrospect,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 86, 1967, pp. 53–68. Jacob Neusner, Early Rabbinic Judaism (E. J. Brill).