Dura Europas, Syria
The House Church of Dura Europas, or what remains of it, is the world’s oldest known existing Christian church structure. Dating perhaps as far back as the early 2nd century AD, the House Church was probably abandoned before Constantine legalized Christianity in the empire. Nevertheless on its site is preserved some of the world’s earliest Christian artwork, including the oldest known depiction of Jesus Christ. To add to the astounding nature of the site, right nearby are the ruins of one of the world’s oldest known synagogues. The proximity of the two holy sites suggests a strong connection between the religions in early times, and the House Church may have been used by Judaized Christians. Because it is not well known and very far off the beaten path, the House Church of Europa provides a nearly pristine pilgrimage experience, one that few visitors ever get to enjoy.
Dura Europas was an ancient border city along the constantly shifting frontiers of the Roman and Persian empires. Possession of Dura Europas and its strong fortifications near the Euphrates River shifted several times during the early Christian period. It was held by the Parthians until 165 AD, then conquered by the Romans, and then retaken by the Sassanids, successors to the Parthians, in 257. Its position along the major trade routes between Aleppo and Ctesiphon made it a natural highway for the spread of Christianity into the east.
The exact date of the arrival of Christianity in Dura Europas is uncertain. One of the most popular traditions is that the Christian community of Dura Europas was founded by Thomas the Apostle or one of his disciples when he passed through the area on his way to Persia. While this legend is not without merit, there is no substantial evidence suggesting that Christianity was around quite so early. Christians may have trickled in during the 1st and 2nd centuries, but it probably wasn’t until the arrival of the Romans that Dura Europas had a sizeable Christian population.
At some time in the late 2nd or early 3rd century, the Christians of Dura Europas began to assemble in the private residence which would later become known as the House Church. It is uncertain whether these assemblies were at first held in secret, but by 235 AD at least the Christians seemed to be confident enough to begin decorating the church with Christian artwork. A number of frescoes on the church walls date from around this time, including three featuring episodes from the life of Jesus. These are the oldest artistic depictions of Jesus that have ever been discovered.
Unfortunately, the House Church was not used for long. Approximately two decades after the church’s decoration, the Roman garrison of Dura Europas was overcome by the Sassanids. The local population was killed or driven off, and many of the buildings destroyed. Shortly thereafter, the city was abandoned, never to be inhabited again. Ironically, it is probably for this reason that the House Church is so well preserved. Between the dry desert climate, the lack of natural disasters, lack of demolition or new construction, and lack of interest by the locals, what the Sassanians failed to destroy in the 3rd century has been preserved to be enjoyed by Christian visitors nearly eighteen-hundred years later.
While the ruins of Dura Europas are extensive, they can be explored in a few hours by those few who actually make it there. The House Church is located in the southwestern corner of the ruins not too far from the Palmyra gate. The surviving remains of the church consist of several complete walls, a few partial walls and the outlines of the foundation.
The most notable features of the House Church ruins are the surviving frescoes. The main fresco is that of the three women visiting the Holy Sepulchre after the crucifixion. One of them is identified by name as Salome. Other frescoes include the Parable of the Shepherd; Jesus walking on the water; Jesus healing the lame; Adam and Eve; and the battle of David and Goliath.
Dura Europas is very far out of the way, more than two hundred miles east of Damascus and two hundred miles west of Baghdad. It is located close to the great highway that connects Aleppo in Syria to Baghdad in Iraq, about twenty-five miles north of the Iraqi border. It is a full-day’s excursion from Raqqa in Syria, the nearest major city. The ruins of Dura Europas are otherwise an open site. Web: Not currently available due to ongoing problems in the region
In addition to the House Church, the ruins are also home to the Dura Europas Synagogue, one of the oldest known synagogues in the world. It is also renowned for its ancient Biblical frescoes. In recent years, archaeologists have been investigating the ruins of yet another ancient church near the site of the St. Georgeuos Church in Rihab, Joran. The ruins here may actually predate those of Dura Europas, though investigation is ongoing.