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Syria: Where war hides history

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Frederick Deknatel

(Read caption) The Euphrates River, as seen from the Greco-Roman fortress of Dura-Europos.

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Syria is Damascus to the growing number of Western tourists here. A short trip to the Greek desert city of Palmyra, about halfway to the Euphrates from the capital, is often as far east as visitors go.

Down the highway, however, where the Euphrates greens a strip of the rocky landscape, is a corner of the country less known for historical sights than for its proximity to war-torn Iraq. It is from here that militants have entered Iraq since the American invasion in 2003. The conflict has left Dura-Europos largely unseen by tourists.

But on a cliff overlooking the Euphrates less than 30 miles from Iraq, where Roman soldiers once watched for invading Persians, it’s possible to imagine life in the fortified desert city of Dura-Europos 2,000 years ago. Founded in 300 BC by Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, it was a cosmopolitan outpost; first Hellenistic, then Roman – home to Greeks, Syrians, Christians, and Jews.

The synagogue on a side street by the still-standing mud-brick walls was preserved under sand, like so much of Dura, for more than 1,500 years. British soldiers coming from recently occupied Iraq stumbled upon the city in 1920; an American archaeologist excavated the synagogue in 1932.

Shipped to Damascus, where it was rebuilt, the synagogue is one of the oldest and most unique Jewish monuments in antiquity – on display at the Syrian National Museum. Its frescoed walls depict such vibrant biblical scenes that it was originally thought to be a Greek temple.

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