Giant Sandbag

  In 1921, British troops operating in the Syrian Desert accidentally discovered the ancient city of Dura-Europos, a caravan outpost first established by the Babylonians in 300 BC. During excavations carried out between 1928 and 1937, archaeologists unearthed a synagogue in amazingly pristine condition. The walls were covered with some fifty-eight vivid paintings depicting Moses at the burning bush and receiving the Ten Commandments, as well as other biblical scenes. The colorful tempera murals looked almost freshly painted. But more than the dry desert air had preserved them: A hard-pressed Roman commander inadvertently saved them seventeen centuries earlier by turning the synagogue into a giant sandbag. Because it was a strategic outpost along the Euphrates River trade route, Dura-Europos was frequently attacked and occupied by different forces over the centuries.
  In the third century AD, a declining Roman Empire maintained a tenuous hold on the city in the face of a series of attacks by a new dynasty of Persians called the Sassanians. Alarmed, the desperate leader of the Roman garrison hatched a plan to strengthen the city's defenses.
  Noting that the back wall of the synagogue faced the vulnerable west wall of the city, he began to fill the intervening street with sand. That step completed, he had his workers rip away the synagogue's roof and fill the inside of the building with sand to buttress the strengthened outer wall.
  His efforts proved futile. In AD 256, the Persians defeated the Romans and sacked the city. Those who didn't manage to escape were probably massacred or sold into slavery. Then, for reasons lost to history, the Persians abandoned the city, leaving untouched the thick, sand-filled enclosure housing art that preserved the vanished ambiance of this ancient world.