Middle East | Syria – Dura Europos: sparkly walls, and crumbled temples

Middle East | Syria – Dura Europos: sparkly walls, and crumbled temples

It took a while before I was able to peel myself away from the family in the morning, even though I’d planned to get cracking first thing. I’d woken early after a lousy night, too hot in a bright, moonlit room under the water tower. The room was full of the whine of mosquitoes, and the chattering of night birds, and I’d tossed and turned, sticky with sweat, sleeping only in half hour patches. I lay in bed, in the early morning, listening to the chickens and the sounds of people getting up to start their day, and tottered down with my pack. I was herded into the back courtyard, the family’s area, to sit on a step and join the second sitting of breakfast. The boys were already at work in the garden, but we were drinking tea.

The youngest children had yoghurt mixed into their tea—a rather revolting looking concoction of gloopy pale brown—but the rest of us feasted on yesterday’s bread, and sweet fresh butter, while Madam gave the family their marching orders for the day. We went through several exuberant cycles of thank you, and farewell, before I was able to extricate Madam from her flock for a slightly embarrassing exchange about payment. I lurched off along the track, waving madly, loaded down with extra bottles of water, and a skinful of mosquito bites.

I’d barely reached the main road, and sat down on my pack when an empty micro stopped to see what I was waving about. Dura? Sure. No problem. But first, there was his breakfast. The badly shaved driver unwrapped a half-fossilised shwarma from its shiny greaseproof paper, and demolished it in two minutes flat, chewing like a starved wolf. I watched in horror, before he caught my eye in the prayer-bead draped mirror, and blushed.

+ + + + +

It’s not far up the road to Dura Europos, about 25 kilometres. I’d seen the flash of white walls the day before, across a flat, stony plain, when I was heading down to Mari. But the walk from the main road, to the entrance, is one of those deceptively long kilometres. The walls of the city refused to come closer, however many steps I took. There was nothing, nothing at all around me, except for one house along the way, with paint cans hanging from its fences, and dust-covered foliage looking forlorn in the vegetable patch. I turned around and around, gazing across the emptiness, trying to work out why the fortress had been built here. No one has ever quite worked that out; there are no clear answers as to why this spot was chosen over any other.

Dura was established at the time when Alexander the Great’s empire was being parcelled out among his heirs. Seleucos I Nicator drew the straw for Mesopotamia and Northern Syria. (The city’s name, Europos comes from his birthplace in Macedonia, and ‘Dura’ means fortress in Old Semitic). Its early years were as a fortress guarding the river route to Lower Mesopotamia, and the planned city didn’t get started until the mid second century BCE. Dura became the focus of the military colonies across the region, but it never seems to have lived up to its plans. Even during the Roman era, the great stone walls were still mud brick from halfway up.

Dura was basically a frontier town, controlling the river, local shipping, the east/west border, and several trade routes. Control of the city, though, was a moveable feast; it passed from Selucid control, to the Romans and the Parthians, and eventually fell to the Sassanians, who destroyed it in 256.

The date of the fall of the city is known with such certainty, because some of the final fights—hand-to-hand combat between the Roman troops and the invaders—took place shortly after payday. One of the massive defensive towers had been mined from each side. The mines collapsed and the soldiers were buried. Their skeletons were unearthed in the twentieth century, surrounded by the coins from their pockets. The most recently minted coins gave their year.

With control being passed back and forth, and traders coming through the city a town of very mixed influences—the buildings show traces of all sorts of design traditions, and there was a full complement of religions, with pagan era temples to the Roman gods Zeus and Artemis, more temples for some of the Palmyrene pantheon, a synagogue, a Christian chapel a converted house (the earliest known centre of this new cult in Syria), and a Mithraeum, for the favourite Persian-originated cult of the Roman legions.

The synagogue walls were the first things from Dura that I saw, the year before, in the museum in Damascus. When the seventeen-century-old building was unearthed in the 1930s, from the piled up sands that had been used to protect the city against mining, it revealed something never seen before. The walls were entirely covered with frescoes: bright, strong, clear paintings in the local style of scenes from the Old Testament, breaking all the rules by being full to bursting with representations of the human figure.

+ + + + +

There was a strong wind bashing into me from the side, making my skin sting with flying grit. I sang ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ very badly, and very loudly; there was no one around to run away in protest at the aural torture. I put my head down, reading some notes about the city, and cracked on. It worked. Each time I looked up, the city had taken a jump closer, and the walls were looking bigger and bigger. You can see them for miles around—there’s nothing to block the view, but it’s only when you get up close that you have any conception of the true scale. The main wall was huge: eight hundred metres along the outside face, punctuated with heavy defensive towers.

Even though it was barely past eight in the morning, the sun was starting to get very hot, and there was little shade, even inside the city. A man, in a thick nylon anorak and a rather more traditional head scarf scrambled down the rough steps by the Palmyra gate, from the old guardhouse, and relieved me of the standard 300 Syrian Pound entrance fee. There was some fussing and searching, as he went through the panniers on his beaten up motorbike to find a date stamp that didn’t work until he licked the end to moisten the number. He gave me a green stained smile and waved me through the entrance.

Once you’re through the walls, the site spreads another half kilometre in front of you, a vast jumble of excavated foundations, and low stone walls. The ground is rough with broken stones and dry tufts of grass and thistles, but you can still see the gridlines of streets and clusters of buildings. With the lack of shade, colour seems to have drained out of the place. But the mud bricks are embedded with mica, which flashes and sparkles in the sun. It seems an oddly whimsical decoration for a military stronghold.

I followed the line of the main walls north first of all, ducking through low doorways to find interlocking chambers, inside the walls but open to the sky, and poked about in the khan, and the temples in the corner. It was only when I edged past the corner that I got an idea of the true scale of the defences. There might be a bloody great wall, but there was also a deep wadi, with steep sides, and a huge drop down to the bright blue-green of the far-below ribbon of the Euphrates River. There’s a similar line of natural defences on the Southern edge, with the river running along the East.

For all the time I’d spent looking at a plan of the site, I’d forgotten that it sat above the river like this. The sight of the water came as a delicious surprise. I continued to walk around the edges of the fortress, trying to keep the river in view as I clambered around the commander’s palace and through the other side. I sat a while, swigging tepid bottled water, enjoying the breeze, and gazing down across the river.

It’s clear where the flood plain lies—there’s an abundance of greenery, of domestic buildings, of cultivation. There are neat strips of farming; from a vantage point up on this ridge, you can see the ant-sized people moving around in their fields. Outside, on the plain in front of the fortress, was nothing at all, not a blade of grass, but on the other side of the river every inch of the fertile earth was being used. I could hear the beds of reeds moving in the wind and, somewhere in the distance, a donkey was complaining. It’s impossible to avoid seeing how some of the oldest civilisations grew up here, along these generous rivers that unloaded rich silt into the soil each year.

+ + + + +

Inside Dura, a couple of hundred metres away was a solid, fairly high wall. I could see two people walking along the ridge of it, and decided to go and check it out, see if I had imagined them.

Walking closer, I burst out laughing when the optical illusion broke. Below me, the earth angled down steeply, leading to another wadi. Down there at river level was a huge citadel. Huge. A monster of a castle. Tall enough to rise to the level of the main city. From where I’d stood before, only the topmost few feet had been visible.

I followed a narrow, well-beaten track down the slope, and then got tangled in false starts and trickery. There were faint trails in different directions, which would end abruptly over a chasm of excavations, or be covered in broken glass too widely strewn to leap over.

I was already too hot, but I couldn’t get this far and then turn back. I could already imagine the conversation I’d have with Snarl:

“So, what did you do when you went to Dura Europos?”
“Me? Oh, I pottered about for a while, saw a big damn citadel, and decided to ignore it and went home.”
“You lazy sod.”

Muttering rude words, I scrambled up into the castle, and climbed up anything and everything that looked even halfway climbable. There was no breeze inside these closer walls, so the heat was rather more obvious. I slithered down into a small patch of shade, and contemplated a nap. I settled for another guzzle of water, and carried on across the city. For the next few hours I hopped up and down onto walls, to get into old houses and shops and temples. I picked up fragments to steal, and became fascinated by the way that mica flakes apart—it was right back to chemistry O level, and lessons about crystalline structures—and then felt guilty, and dropped them again.

This place didn’t get under my skin like Mari had. It was impressive. The scale was stupendous, and everything was up above ground, rather than dug down through layers of time, but, there was less pleasure in the exploration.

Back at the entrance, where everything was shadowy and relatively cool, I was joined by the gatekeeper. He fussed over me sitting on the stones, and insisted on finding me something more appropriate to sit on. I wasn’t over keen on sitting on his rather nasty anorak, though. He rolled me cigarettes, traded for the Winstons I was smoking. It was getting harder and harder to find American cigarettes in Syria. The street sellers, who transported cheap smokes in from Lebanon were too cross with the US, for adding Syria to the list of ‘the axis of Evil’. Even smugglers have national pride, but their unilateral boycott of goods meant I’d been struggling to find a brand I liked. The tiny Iranian cigarettes we’d bought last time had put me off—they were liquid with tar, and still rougher than five o’clock shadow.

From the start, though, he was just a little bit too friendly. After the “married, how many babies, no babies, have you seen a doctor” he beamed at me, and offered to make some Syrian babies with me. I pretended not to understand, showed him my collection of pictures of my husband, and asked him about his wife.

“Very, very expensive to have a wife. Costs so much money to be married. First, the presents, the wedding, the clothes. Then, you have to buy all the things for your house, for your madam. Too much money for me.”

Oops. He didn’t have a wife.

I started to look at my watch. He asked where I was going next. I talked about visiting Deir ez Zur, going on to Raqqa and Resafeh.

“But you must sleep here, instead! You can stay in the citadel. No money. For free! Very cheap price, huh? Sleep in the castle. Look at the stars. Or, if that’s not good, come and stay in my house, down by the wadi.”

No, he still didn’t have a wife. Damn. And he didn’t live with his family.

It would have been marvellous to sleep in the citadel next to the river, curled up against ancient walls. It would almost certainly have been better than whichever grubby hotel I’d be ending up in. But, I couldn’t. Not just me, and the anoraked gatekeeper, alone in a deserted city. Nope.

“Perhaps next time, when I return to Syria with my husband.”

I’d never heard the word ‘Insh’Allah’ said so despondently.

+ + + + +

There was a minibus parked outside, though I’d not seen anyone around apart from the distant figures on the citadel wall. It was pushing one o’clock, and the light was glaringly bright. Dozens of dust-coloured crickets scattered, with every footstep as I marched back to the main road. My skin felt like tissue paper, and my pack was heavier than any bag weighing twenty pounds has any right to be. There were shimmering patches of mirage-light where the highway should be. And then, bliss, there was a mad honking right behind me. The minibus swerved, I jumped out of the way, the driver waved to me, and yelled, ‘Deir? You want to go to Deir?’

‘Na’am! Yes! Shukran!’
‘Itfaddali! Here you are! In! In!’

I swung up through the open door, and came face to face with three very smart, very unamused French people.
The driver welcomed me, his six-year-old son waved, and the French people glowered.
‘OK to take this lady with us? Yes? OK!’
‘Er…’ said the senior Frenchman.
‘That’s so kind of you,’ I said, before he could say it wasn’t OK. We were already moving though, and getting out again could have been messy.

So, I rode back to Deir, perched in the jump seat behind the driver, listening to Arabic covers of Motown tunes, and chatting to the kid. The French family didn’t talk to me, except to say they had hired the bus for a couple of days, and were going to Palmyra. I started to enthuse about Palmyra, in really lousy French, but their perfectly shaped noses were already back in the Michelin guide.

There were small villages all the way along the road. Everything looked lush, and abundant with growth. The houses were surrounded by sunflowers and hollyhocks, or had ripe corn growing right up to the front door. Cows ambled around, looking fat. Donkeys ambled down the middle of the road, loaded with bundles, most with two girls sitting on their back. The irrigation channels, which ended in deep pools, were full of splashing, squawking children larking about like it was the best summer holiday yet invented. The driver honked with delight as he bullied the donkeys out of the road, swerved around the pothole craters, or overtook trucks of sheep.

They dropped me near the centre of the town, by the river, and I went to find my hotel.

Category : Middle East | Syria , Uncategorized