Soldiers & the City: Dura-Europos/Salihiyeh, Syria

Research examining the rich archaeological remains of the ancient city of Dura or Europos on the Euphrates, and the historiography of its exploration

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Simon James is engaged in long-term research on the archaeology and history of the ancient city now known as Dura-Europos, Syria, often called 'the Pompeii of the Syrian Desert'. More recently known as Salihiyeh, the site is an abandoned Hellenistic, Parthian and Roman city on the banks of the Euphrates in Eastern Syria which, in its latter years, displayed great cultural complexity. A Macedonian military colony which grew into a city with Greek institutions and a Hellenising elite, its population largely comprised Aramaic-speaking Syrians, but included many special groups. Notably there was a major Palmyrene presence and, during its final century under Roman rule, Jewish and  Christian communities. Dura’s well-preserved archaeological remains, largely sealed after the city was destroyed by the Sasanian Persians c.AD256 never to be reoccupied, have provided remarkable insights into life in the region during the classical period.

Hitherto SJ’s work has focused especially on the Roman garrison resident in the city in the later 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. This has involved a combination of research into the records and object collections from the extensive campaigns of excavations conducted by the French and Americans during the 1920s and 1930s, now mostly housed in Yale University Art Gallery, and also new fieldwork on the site itself, under the generous auspices of the recent Franco-Syrian expedition, which was halted in 2011 by the outbreak of civil war in Syria.

Earlier work on the military remains and records from Dura uncovered evidence suggesting use of 'chemical warfare' by the Sasanians during the final siege.

More recently, a study of the life of the Roman garrison , the military base it occupied in the northern part of the walled city, and how the imperial military presence impacted urban life was published as a major monograph.

Current work focuses on two strands:

  • the evolving sociopolitical nature of the community focused in the city, the extent and economy of the wider territory of which Dura was the capital for five centuries, and the dynamics and interactions of this polity with the imperial systems (Macedonian, Parthian, Roman and Sasanian) which tussled to control it
  • historiographical work on identification of Salihiyeh as the ancient ‘Dura-Europos’, and its initial archaeological exploration, mainly by British and French colonial soldiers in the context of the aftermath of the First World War. Archival research reveals all this to have been intimately intertwined with colonialist violence marking a largely forgotten, grim but historically important chapter in the biography of Salihiyeh/Dura-Europos

Since 2011, like many other famous sites in Syria, Dura has been subjected to industrial-scale illegal excavation and looting by armed groups exploiting the chaos of civil war. The Heritage catastrophe here and elsewhere in Syria underlines the value of the world's archaeological archives and study of them, in this case preserving vital information and material to help future generations of Syrians reclaim something of their threatened and vanishing history.

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