In the Ether: Chemical Warfare and Dura-Europos

In the first of two articles on Dura-Europos, the author reveals  the ancient city’s demise and the first archaeological evidence of chemical warfare in Syria



1929.364  Bread Stamp  Bronze  Yale University Art Gallery Dura Europos Collection
Bread Stamp
Yale University Art Gallery Dura Europos Collection

The goddess Fama, or Rumour, as she is known by her Roman name, loves to tangle truth with falsehood. “From near nothing,” writes Ovid, “she flourishes on her own lies.”

This past week Fama held court. As reports emerged of chemical warfare in Aleppo’s Sheik Massoud district, other stories were buried under deadly speculation. That Syria possessed chemical weapons was never in dispute. It is widely held that Syria has an extensive tonnage of chemical weaponry ready for deployment.  This is despite the fact that the country has never acceded to either The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or The Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BTWC) or disclosed its arsenal.

What was in dispute was whether the video footage of an alleged victim, seen frothing at the mouth and in a state of convulsion, was indicative of the nerve agent, Sarin. In an earlier incident of March 19th, both the Rebel forces and the Assad regime accused each other of a gas attack in the northern city of Khan Al-Assad. By conservative estimates, 25 people were killed.  As the international community attempted to assess the claims and counter-claims, calls for foreign intervention to contain the conflict, or broaden it, rang out. News of looting at the archaeological site of Dura-Europos, on the other hand, was but a whisper.

History had simply repeated itself, to paraphrase Marx. The first act was tragedy: the second, farce.  The Patrimoine Syrien, the cultural heritage of Syria, had been raped on numerous occasions; Dura-Europos had itself been the victim in July of 2012. The tale of yet more archaeological destruction, as reported in the pro-regime Syrian News, hardly seemed relevant. Were it not for Dura-Europos’ unique contribution to military history, relevance might surely have been discounted. Yet scholarly opinion now suggests that the city’s demise in 258 CE was the result of chemical warfare and Dura Europos provides the first archaeological evidence of its lethal application.

In an article entitled, “Stratagems, Combat and “Chemical Warfare” in the Siege Mines of Dura-Europos”, Simon James revisits the archaeological and archival evidence from the 1928-1937 Excavation Seasons conducted by Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters.  James’ focus is on the last days of the city. In particular he re-examines the evidence of “Tower 19” on the city’s western wall and the neighbouring siege-rampart.

Dura-Europos Aerial 2013
Dura-Europos Aerial 2013

In its short life of approximately 550 years, Dura-Europos had witnessed the great empires of the Seleucids, one of Alexander the Great’s successors, and the Parthians of the Iranian plateau. This was well before Septimius Severus [145-193 CE] established a permanent Roman garrison in 211 CE. Under Severus’s heir, the emperor Caracalla [188-198 CE], the garrison was enlarged and citizenship was bestowed upon all “free” members of the empire under the, “Constitutio Antoniniana”, the “Edict of Caracalla”.  Today we know of this garrison, the Cohors XX Palmyrenorum, solely from the “Dura Latin Papyri”, now housed in the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

At some point circa 251-254 CE the Sassanian war machine of Shapur 1st [226-272 CE] besieged the city. By 254 CE the city was back under Roman control. This is evidenced by an extensive program to increase the fortifications in the event of a further attack. This “boom” consisted of erecting a steep revetment and huge rampart to withstand battering rams and attempts to undermine the city’s walls. “Wall Street”, as is illustrated below running parallel to the western (desert) wall, together with its houses, was buried under sand to form a 20 metre wide protective buttress. It was this very action that preserved the famous fresco-laden synagogue, the early Baptistry “house-church” and the Mithraeum until discovery, 17 centuries later.

Although the fortifications did withstand the latter siege of 256-257 CE, Dura-Europos fell on account of mining and counter-mining. The Romans had already established that Shapur’s troops were attempting to infiltrate the city via a mine located near “Tower 19”.  In response, the Romans built a counter-mine in the hope of intercepting the invading forces. The plan backfired. Instead of capturing the intruders, the Roman counter-mine was taken oven.

For decades scholars have maintained that the mine was the scene of a cramped military battle. Yet in James’ reassessment, contrary to that of the original site excavator, Robert du Mesnil du Buisson, the tangled skeletal remains of 19 Roman soldiers and one Sassanian, indicate otherwise: an immediate death by toxic gas inhalation. Forensic examination of the yellow crystals and pitch, found “in situ”, subsequently matched sulphur and bitumen (an incendiary catalyst). Within minutes of the chemicals’ deployment by the unfortunate Sassanian solider, the sulphur and bitumen created deadly sulphurous dioxide. It burnt the mucous membranes of the victims’ lungs, eyes and nasal cavities in what was surely an agonizing death. Thereafter the mine was now open for the Sassanians to gain entrance and sack the city.

Dura-Europos with its grid system
Dura-Europos with its grid system


This past week I spoke to Professor Abdulkarim of the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). When asked to comment on the recent reports in Syrian News, Abdulkarim stated that the latest incidences reflect illegal excavations at both Dura-Europos and Mari. Local and foreign operatives from Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq have exploited the situation. Abdulkarim pleaded for intervention: the international community should close the borders and seal off Syria.

The archaeological site is located in the very east of Syria. It is situated on the west bank of the Euphrates river close to the town of Salhiye 60 km south of Deir Ez Zor and 40 km north of the Abu Kamal (Qaim) border crossing with Iraq. The Euphrates is both a natural frontier and a conduit. It divides the region into the Shamiyyah (the Levant), on Dura-Europos’s side, and the Jazeera (Mesopotamia) on the opposite, eastern bank. The river, and its fertile slopes, also unites the cities of Mari (Tel Hariri), Pumbeidtha (Fallujah), Karbala, Babylon (Hillah) and Najaf further south.


At the time of writing, this eastern-most corner of the country is in the hands of the Rebels but the Assad regime does control several small bases in the vicinity.  The region has been troubled for years. The town of Abu Kamal had been the scene of an early anti-Assad demonstration in April of 2011. And on the Iraqi side, the Qaim border crossing had long been associated with insurgency. Smuggling remains a primary economic activity.

To close the borders (in the hope of protecting antiquities) can only worsen the humanitarian crisis as refugees attempt to flee war-torn Syria.   With or without the deployment of chemical weapons, open borders remain critical. Can the flow of traffic be regulated and, at the same time, secure the frontier? I certainly can’t think of a solution. What I do know is that the prospects do not look good. On Monday’s “The World Tonight” (BBC Radio 4) Joshua Landis of Syria Comment and Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, rendered his verdict: Assad has managed to call Obama’s bluff.  “Red lines” will not lead to interventionist “green lights”. Assad will, in all likelihood, resort to chemical warfare.

If Landis is correct, as I fear, history is doomed to repeat itself. This time, the second act will be all the more tragic than the first and far from farce.


The author wishes to thank Susan Matheson, Megan Doyon and Lisa Brody of Yale University and Yale University Art Gallery for their kind support. He is also grateful to Elizabeth Frengel of the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. The views expressed in the article above are those of the author alone.   @blitz_adam on Twitter





About the Author
Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. He is a member of PEN International. The views expressed in the article above are those of the author alone. Twitter @blitz_adam
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