The ancient city sits ninety meters above the Euphrates river. Known in ancient times as Dura Europos, its history spans the most important time for change and strife for Jews and the formative period of Christianity. Dura Europos (the nearest Syrian village is Salhiyé ) is now under ISIS control. ISIS has put diggers there who are pick pocketing the artifacts of the city and selling them to brokers on the spot.
Dura Europos has three sanctuaries, a synagogue, an early Christian church and a Roman temple. The city was founded by the Seleucids in 303 BC. It would be captured by the Romans in 165 AD who held it until 256 or 257 AD. Established as a trade hub for caravans and river traffic, Dura Europos also was a melting pot of culture and a place of religious ferment.
The period between from 303 BC to 250 AD marks a time of great change in Judaism and Christianity. It is the period of struggle between the Roman occupiers and Jewish zealots who believed the Romans were polluting the Temple and undermining religion. It is a period where notions of a savior took hold in both the Jewish and Christian communities and where it was not always possible to distinguish between Christians and Jews. In the finds at Qumran (popularly known as the site where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered) we can get an extraordinary insight into the religious fervor, the striving for purity, the anticipation of a messiah, that became the core idea of Christianity.
Of particular importance is the work of the prophet Ezekiel. He was Ezekiel ben-Buzi, who lived in exile in Babylonia between 593 and 571 BC. Ezekiel’s writings were modified and added to many times, so it is uncertain what truly belongs to him and what his successors added over the years.
Chapter 37 by Ezekiel is most famously known as “dry bones.”
“The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lordand set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
“I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
” So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
“Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.”
“Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
These verses speak for themselves and it is this vision that takes hold and dominates Qumran and early Christianity.
Remains of the Dura Europos Synagogue
The incredible Dry Bones mural from Dura Europos
Civilization is possible thanks to historical memory, and the artifacts of the past intensify and validate the integrity of our culture and give proof that our beliefs grow out of the struggles of our forbearers. We cannot describe in words what we owe to them, but when they leave behind remnants of their vision it moves us spiritually and emotionally.
The Dura Europos synagogue is now threatened as never before by ISIS. What a tragedy for all of us if we lose this precious symbol of our religious heritage.