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. 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). 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).
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. 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.
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?). 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”).
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.