Founded 505 AD

MMM Documentation Dates
Spring 2015
Site Type
Citadels and Cities
Oğuz (Turkey)
Mardin Province (Turkey)

    The archaeological site of Dara is integrated with the modern village of Oğuz in the Mardin Province of Turkey, 23 km southeast of the city of Mardin. In the early 6th century AD, the small hamlet at this location was transformed into a major Roman outpost against the Sasanian Empire—lying just 18 km northwest of the contested city of Nisibis (Nusaybin)—and renamed Anastasiopolis after the reigning emperor. The site, near the boundary between the Tur ‘Abdin mountain to the north and the Mesopotamian plain to the south, was chosen for its natural defensive position and access to a small tributary of the Habur, the Cordes River, which bisected the city. With its relatively short phase of building activity, the archaeological site provides a unique snapshot of a frontier settlement of the Late Roman/Early Byzantine period. Significant surviving features include stretches of the city massive fortification walls, a large cistern, and a rock-cut necropolis.    

    Dara was designed to encompass three hills: two to the west of the Cordes River and one to its southeast (see the plan as rendered in 1911). The city’s perimeter, 2.8 km in extent, is somewhat irregular as it follows the slopes and crests of these hills. Befitting of a military outpost, Dara boasted imposing fortifications, which were defined by a curtain wall with interspersed towers. Today, the wall’s best preserved stretches are found to the northeast and to the south, near the sluices where the river flowed into and out of the city, respectively (see further below). Built of mortared rubble and double faced with finely squared limestone blocks, the ramparts were about 4 m thick and 10 m high; a thinner upper story, complete with arrow slits, began at the parapet level and brought the fortifications to about 18 m in height (this story is no longer preserved at any point along the circuit, but a small stretch along the southern wall is visible in photographs taken in the early 20th century (see the historical photograph). The wall’s interspersed towers, both U-shaped and rectangular, were multi-storied with vaulted interior chambers. Several towers are preserved along the northeastern stretch of the fortifications.1 In addition to the main circuit, there are scant remains of the proteichisma (outer wall).

    The Cordes entered the city by way of a fluvial gate at the northeast of the perimeter (see the historical photograph). The gate, which featured five arched conduits with sockets for a metal grill, was flanked by two towers. The river was regularized through the city through embankments made of ashlars. Stone bridges provided crossings at several points. The best preserved of these is found at the far south of the city, 60 m north of the wall. The bridge is supported by three semicircular stone arches; the larger central arch spans 10 m and measures 5 m across. Farther south, the river exited the city through a water gate similar to the aforementioned fluvial entrance, but here slits were included over the arches to prevent flooding during flow surges; this exit gate has partially collapsed, and only three conduits are preserved along its west side. The gate’s western flanking turret still stands, and while its eastern turret is lost, part of a U-shaped tower belonging to the adjacent circuit wall is preserved. Another arched construction 15 m south of the gate served as the conduit by which the river flowed through the proteichisma.

    Within its fortifications, Dara grew into a sophisticated urban center; beyond the barracks and storehouses serving the military, the ancient authors refer to public baths, porticoes, a palace, and churches. They also refer to several cisterns—a necessary component of the water management system, as the Cordes ran dry during the summer. However, only a limited area of the ancient city is visible today; the exposed ruins are found to the west of the river, where the main public buildings may have been centered. A paved and colonnaded street, partially preserved toward the south, ran along the west side of the river; it may have flanked the city’s agora further to the west. Some of the surviving structures are integrated with the modern village on the southwestern hill, including a “praetorium” or perhaps a part of the episcopal complex. It should be noted that many of the modern constructions throughout the village incorporate reused materials from the ancient city.

    Among Dara’s most conspicuous ruins is a structure that has generally been interpreted as a cistern (see the historical photograph).2 This “great cistern” is partially cut into the lower slopes of the northern hill. It comprises ten parallel, barrel vaulted chambers, each 50 m long and 4 m wide. The lower parts of the chamber walls were hewn from the rock fabric, while the upper parts and vaults (mainly collapsed) were built with alternating courses of roughly squared stones and bricks. Another important ruin, almost certainly another cistern, is found southwest of the great cistern near the city’s western wall; its preserved roof features stone cross vaults (see the historical photograph).

    A third major structure lies on the southwestern hill. The rectangular building is mainly subterranean, though its upper portion is built 3–4 m above the ground level (see the plan). The arcade along its exposed front leads into an entry corridor; this in turn connects to an internal staircase supported by arches. The staircase descends into the underground hall, which measures about 23 m x 15 m (see the panorama). Four piers made of limestone ashlars split the hall into two longitudinal halves; each half is covered with a barrel vault running lengthwise. The walls are arrayed with engaged piers, forming a kind of blind arcade that delimits the interior space. Although the function of the building has long been debated—as its nickname, the “prison,” attests—it is now generally taken as another cistern, in this case linked to the lost church that once stood upon it (see below).3  

    The ruins of several churches lie throughout the site, the most important of which—the Great Church (cathedral) and the Church of St. Bartholomew—were described in the ancient literary sources.4 The former has been associated with the aforementioned cistern (“prison”). The cantilevered molding over the arcade along the cistern’s southern facade may represent the transition to the cathedral’s lost walls. At the ground level, the foundations of an apse are discernable to the building’s east, and an atrium to its west; a subterranean baptistry with a cross-shaped font lies to the northeast. St. Bartholomew has been associated with an unidentified building lying to the east of the great cistern.5 

    Dara’s necropolis extends over a distance of about a half a kilometer from the western perimeter wall (see the panorama). It was built into a limestone quarry that had been used for the construction of the city’s fortifications. More than 200 tombs have been counted so far. A number of the tombs—mainly those of the sarcophagus and chamosorion type—are set on the ground level. The most striking of these is a freestanding rock-carved 'canopy' with four piers supporting a curved ceiling; it is surrounded by 13 graves.

    The majority of the tombs, however, are arcosolia chambers carved into the vertical faces of the quarry—some very high up and accessible only by ladders. Many of the facades include architectural elaborations like corner colonnettes or rounded arches around their entranceways; carved and painted decorative motifs include palmettes, shells, and Greek crosses, some with flanking animals. Some tombs bear Greek or Syriac inscriptions, now mostly illegible (the Greek inscriptions date to the 6th–7th centuries; the Syriac to the 8th–9th centuries). The tomb interiors average about 2 m2. Many are very simple, single chambers; others are laid out with additional spaces, such as antechambers, and subsidiary features such as niches. 

    The largest and most elaborate grave is found in the western area of the necropolis, at the end of an alleyway within the quarry (see the plan). Its arched entranceway and the window above it are enclosed in a rectangular frame 5.25 m wide, crowned with a blind arch. The panel formed by this frame features an unusual scene, rendered in relief, with a tunic-garbed figure next to a cypress tree (Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones?).6 The main interior chamber measures 13 m2 and is surrounded by a two-tiered arcade with a gallery between the tiers. A shaft opening into a corner of the ceiling provides the chamber with light (along with the aforementioned window). Recent excavations have revealed a second story below the main chamber, and investigation of this area is ongoing. In any case, the bones of hundreds of people found within the tomb thus far indicate that it was a space for multiple burials; scholars have suggested that it was designed for a group of exiles who returned from the territory of the Sasanian Empire in 591 AD (see “History”).7 

    Archaeological campaigns conducted during the past decade have led to discoveries beyond the core of the archaeological site. This includes a large architectural complex to the west of the necropolis, as well as several buildings south and southwest of the city; some of these buildings feature elaborate mosaics.

    • 1. See Preusser 1911, pl. 55.
    • 2. The structure has also been taken as a granary; see Bell and Mundell Mango 1982, 103–104.
    • 3. For a discussion of the various identifications that have been proposed, see Iacobini 1990. On its function as a cistern and relation to the cathedral, see Whitby 1986, 762; Keser-Kayaalp 2017, 156–159.
    • 4. Procopius, Buildings 2.iii.26; Bell and Mundell Mango 1982, 102.
    • 5. See Bell and Mundell Mango 1982, pl. 5. On the association with St. Bartholomew, see Keser-Kayaalp 2017, 159–160.
    • 6. Mundell 1975; see also Nicholson 1985, 667–671.
    • 7. Mundell 1975, 227; cf. Nicholson 1985, 669, suggesting alternatively that the exiles built the tomb for the soldiers who had died in the 573 siege (see “History”).

    On Dara's layout and monuments, see also: Preusser 1911, 44–49; Crow 1981; Croke and Crow 1983, 151–156; Bell and Mundell Mango 1982, 102–105; Whitby 1986; Zanini 2003; Keser-Kayaalp et al. 2017. 

    Prior to Late Antiquity, Dara was a small village apparently founded during the Parthian period; according to Procopius and others, its transformation began in 505 AD, when it was chosen by the emperor Anastasius to serve as a Roman outpost near the border with the Sasanian Empire.1 The founding of a fortified city in this area was necessitated by the recent capture of Amida (Diyarbakır); a new base was required for Roman military operations in Mesopotamia, especially the ongoing campaign for nearby Nisibis (Nusaybin). Dara was strategically sited in relation to the surrounding mountain ranges and had access to an unfailing water source, among other advantageous features. 

    The city’s construction was supervised by the bishop Thomas of Amida and the Roman official Calliopius, quartermaster of the eastern army. The Roman-Sasanian treaty of 441 had forbidden the building of new fortresses in the Mesopotamian border region, but the Sasanians were occupied with other problems and could not wage a concerted campaign of retaliation; they only managed to harass the builders. Construction was rapid and the city was ready for occupation by the end of 507. During its early years, it was called Anastasiopolis after its founder.

    By Justinian’s time, Dara—no longer called Anastasiopolis—had been granted the title of metropolis, becoming the headquarters of both the dux and the bishop of the province of South Mesopotamia. Dara successfully resisted a Sasanian siege in 530, the same year that the Roman general Belisarius won a great battle in the vicinity. It was at this time that the city was refortified by Justinian, who heightened the walls laid out under Anastasius. Dara continued to hold out against further attacks. However, the city was captured during the Sasanian campaign of 573, and a number of residents were exiled to the territory of the Sasanian Empire at this time. Over the next several decades, it seesawed back and forth between Sasanian and Roman control (in 591, notably, it was returned to the Romans, and the aforementioned exiles were allowed to return). 

    In 639, Dara was taken by the Arab-Islamic armies along with the entirety of Roman Mesopotamia. Following this, the city declined in importance, and there was little building activity. Still, it retained a sizable Syriac Orthodox community through at least the 13th century (as attested by ecclesiastical records), and it maintained a multi-ethnic population into the following centuries. After his visit to the site in 1842, George Percy Badger reported: “There are two villages standing amidst the ruins of ancient Dara, one containing 40 Armenian, and the other 100 Coordish families. The Christians have a small church and a priest, and are reckoned as belonging to the diocese of Diarbekir.”2 Other travelers throughout the 19th and early 20th century made frequent note of the inhabitation of the tombs and other ruins by the locals. Today, the necropolis has been converted into an archaeological park, while a village with a predominantly Kurdish population (modern Oğuz, with several hundred residents) lives on within the walls of the ancient city.

    • 1. Procopius accompanied Belisarius to Dara in 529/530 and wrote about it in Buildings (2.i.4-3.26); see also Wars (2.xiii.16-19). He is suspected to have exaggerated the evidence for Justinian’s role in the city’s foundation due to the panegyrical nature of his work (see Croke and Crow 1983). See further the history of Zachariah of Mityline (ps.-Zach. Chron. vi.6); the Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite (ed. Wright 1882, 70).
    • 2. Badger 1852 (1), 308. The village’s last remaining Christians departed for Syria during World War I (see Anschütz 1975, 185).

    General sources on Dara’s history: Preusser 1911, 44; Anschütz 1975, 185; Croke and Crow 1983, 148–153; Keser-Kayaalp et al. 2017.

    The first traveler to record his visit to Dara was the French adventurer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who passed through in 1644. His brief commentary focuses on the underground cistern, which he assumes to be a subterranean church.1 In 1813–1814, John Macdonald Kinneir made a systematic survey of the site, describing the necropolis, walls, and several buildings interspersed with the modern village.2 From this time, Dara was increasingly on the itinerary of travelers passing between Mardin and Mosul, who were often attracted by the city’s significant role in Roman history (a role that had been underlined by Edward Gibbon in his widely read Decline and Fall).3 It is thus mentioned in numerous 19th century travel accounts; for instance, William Ainsworth describes it as “the most remarkable place in this part of the world, whether from the extent of its ruins, its vast subterranean dwellings, and the richly ornamented decoration of its excavated tombs.”4 In the early 20th century, Conrad Preusser and Gertrude Bell more thoroughly documented the site, providing photographic surveys of its major monuments.5  

    • 1. Tavernier 1676, 170 (referring to the site as Karasera).
    • 2. Kinneir 1818, 436–441.
    • 3. Gibbon 1905 [1788], 209–210.
    • 4. Ainsworth 1842 (2), 117-118; cf. Badger 1852 (1), 306–310.
    • 5. Preusser 1911, 44–49, pls. 53–61; Bell’s photographs are published in Bell and Mundell Mango 1982, 102–105, pls. 1–8.

    Ainsworth, William Francis. 1842. Travels and Researches in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Chaldea and Armenia. 2 vols. London: J. W. Parker.

    Anschütz, Helga. 1975. “Einige Ortschaften des Tur ‘Abdin im sudösten der Türkei als Beispiele gegenwärtiger und historischer Bedeutung.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Suppl. 3 (1): 179–193.

    Badger, George Percy. 1852. The Nestorians and Their Rituals. 2 vols. London: J. Masters. 

    Bell, Gertrude, and Marlia Mundell Mango. 1982. The Churches and Monasteries of the Tur ‘Abdin. London: Pindar. Reprint, with new preface, notes, and catalogues, of Gertrude Bell’s The Churches and Monasteries of the Tur ‘Abdin (1910) and Churches and Monasteries the Tur ‘Abdin and Neighboring Districts (1913).

    Croke, Brian, and James Crow. 1983. “Procopius and Dara.” Journal of Roman Studies 73: 143–159. 

    Crow, James. 1981. “Dara, a Late Roman Fortress in Mesopotamia.” Yayla: Report of the Northern Society for Anatolian Archaeology 4: 12–20.

    Furlan, Italo. 1988. “Oikema katagheion: Una problematica struttura a Dara.” In Milion: Studi e ricerche d'arte bizantina; Atti della Giornata di Studio, Roma, 4 dicembre 1986, edited by Claudia Barsanti, Alessandra G. Guidobaldi, and Antonio Iacobini, 105–118. 

    Gibbon, Edward. 1905 [1788]. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 4. London: Methuen.

    Keser-Kayaalp, Elif, Nihat Erdogan, and Andrew Palmer. 2017. “Recent Research on Dara/Anastasiopolis.” In New Cities in Late Antiquity: Documents and Archaeology, edited by Efthymios Rizos, 153–175. Turnhout: Brepols.

    Kinneir, John Macdonald. 1818. Journey through Asia Minor, Armenia, and Koordistan in the Years 1813 and 1814. London: J. Murray.

    Mundell, Marlia. 1975. “A Sixth Century Funerary Relief at Dara in Mesopotamia.” Jahrbuch der österreichischen Byzantinistik 24: 209–227.

    Nicholson, Oliver. 1985. “Two Notes on Dara.” American Journal of Archaeology 89 (4): 663–671.

    Preusser, Conrad. 1911. Nordmesopotamische Baudenkmäler altchristlicher und islamischer Zeit. Wissenschaftliche Veröffentlichung der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 17. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs. 

    Tavernier, Jean-Baptiste. 1676. Les six voyages de Jean Baptiste Tavernier, ecuyer baron d’Aubonne, en Turquie, en Perse, et aux Indes […]. Vol. 1. Paris: G. Clouzier and C. Barbin.

    Whitby, M. 1986. “Procopius’ Description of Dara ('Buildings' II.1-3).” In The Defence of the Roman and Byzantine East: Proceedings of a Colloquium Held at the University of Sheffield in April 1986, edited by Philip Freeman and David Kennedy, 737–783. Oxford: B.A.R.

    Zanini, Enrico. 2003. “The Urban Ideal and Urban Planning in Byzantine Cities of the Sixth Century AD.” In Theory and Practice in Late Antique Archaeology, edited by Luke Lavan and William Bowden, 196–223. Leiden: Brill.

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