Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Byzantine Fortress of Dara

Dara, Necropolis
Dara or Daras was an important East Roman fortress city in Northern Mesopotamia on the border with the Sassanid Empire. Because of its great strategic importance, it featured prominently in the Roman-Persian conflicts of the 6th century, with the famous Battle of Dara taking place before its walls in 530. Today the Turkish village of Oğuz, a few kilometers North of the Syrian border, occupies its location.

The Eastern Roman Fortress of Dara

Dara or Daras was an important East Roman fortress city in northern Mesopotamia on the border with the Sassanid Empire. Because of its great strategic importance, it featured prominently in the Roman-Persian conflicts of the 6th century, with the famous Battle of Dara taking place before its walls in 530. Today the Turkish village of Oğuz, Mardin Province, occupies its location.

Dara Founded by Emperor Anastasius

During the Anastasian War in 502–506, the Roman armies fared badly against the Sassanid Persians. According to the Syriac Chronicle of Zacharias of Mytilene, the Roman generals blamed their difficulties on the lack of a strong base in the area, as opposed to the Persians, who held the great city of Nisibis (which until its cession in 363 had served the same purpose for the Romans).

Flavius Anastasius Augustus
Emperor 491 to 518

Therefore, in 505, while the Persian King Kavadh I was distracted in the East, Emperor Anastasius I decided to rebuild the village of Dara, only 18 kilometres westwards from Nisibis and just 5 km from the actual border with Persia, to be "a refuge for the army in which they might rest, and for the preparation of weapons, and to guard the country of the Arabs from the inroads of the Persians and Saracens".

Masons and workers from all over Mesopotamia were gathered and worked with great haste. The new city was built on three hills, on the highest of which stood the citadel, and endowed with great storehouses, a public bath, and water cisterns.

It took the name Anastasiopolis and became the seat of the Roman dux Mesopotamiae.

Reconstruction by Justinian

According to Procopius, the hasty construction of the original walls resulted in poor quality, and the severe weather conditions of the region exacerbated the problem, ruining some sections. Thus Emperor Justinian I was compelled to undertake extensive repairs to the city, afterwards renaming it Iustiniana Nova. The walls were rebuilt and the inner wall raised by a new storey, doubling its height to about 60 feet (20 m). The towers were strengthened and raised to three stories (ca. 100 feet) high, and a moat dug out and filled with water.
Dara is in Mardin Province, Turkey.

Justinian's engineers also diverted the nearby river Cordes towards the city by digging a canal. The river now flowed through the city, ensuring ample water supply.

At the same time, by means of diverting its flow to an underground channel which exited 40 miles (64 km) to the north, the garrison was able to deny water to a besieging enemy, a fact which saved the city on several occasions. To avert the danger of flooding, which had already once wrecked large parts of the city, an elaborate arch dam was built to contain it, one of the earliest known of its kind. In addition, barracks were built for the garrison, and two new churches were constructed, the "Great Church", and one dedicated to St Bartholomew.

Later history

The city was later besieged and captured by the Persians in 573-574, but was returned to the Romans by Khosrau II after the Roman-Persian treaty in 590. It was taken again by Khosrau in 604-05 after a nine-month siege, restored again to the Roman Empire by Heraclius, until it was finally captured in 639 by the Arabs. After this the city lost its military significance, declined and was eventually abandoned.

The Buildings of Justinian
By Procopius of Caesarea

Book II  -  In Book II Procopius below writes about the fortifications and cities on the Persian frontier

All the new churches which the Emperor Justinian built both in Constantinople and in its suburbs, and all those which, having been ruined by the passage of time, he restored, as well as all the other buildings which he erected here, have been described in the preceding Book.  From this point we must proceed to the defences with which he surrounded the farthest limits of the territory of the Romans.

Here indeed my narrative will be constrained to halt painfully and to labour with an impossible subject.  For it is not the pyramids which we are about to describe, those celebrated monuments of the rulers of Egypt, on which labour was expended for a useless show, but rather all the fortifications whereby this Emperor preserved the Empire, walling it about and frustrating the attacks of the barbarians on the Romans. And it seems to me not amiss to start from the Persian frontier.

When the Persians retired from the territory of the Romans, selling to them the city of Amida, as I have related in the Books on the Wars, the Emperor Anastasius selected a hitherto insignificant village close to the Persian boundary, Daras by name, and urgently set about enclosing it with a wall and making it into a city which should serve as a bulwark against the enemy. 

But since it was forbidden in the treaty which the Emperor Theodosius once concluded with the Persian nation, that either party should construct any new fortress on his own land where it bordered on the boundaries of the other nation, the Persians, citing the terms of the peace, tried with all their might to obstruct the work, though they were hard pressed by being involved in a war with the Huns.


The city walls and tower

So the Romans, observing that they were for this reason unprepared, pressed on the work of building all more keenly, being anxious to get ahead of the enemy before they should finish their struggle with the Huns and come against them.  Consequently, being fearful by reason of suspicion of the enemy, and continually expecting their attacks, they did not carry out the building with care, since the haste inspired by their extreme eagerness detracted from the stability of their work.  For stability is never likely to keep company with speed, nor is accuracy wont to follow swiftness. 

They therefore carried out the construction of the circuit-wall in great haste, not having made it fit to withstand the enemy, but raising it only to such a height as was barely necessary; indeed they did not even lay the stones themselves carefully, or fit them together as they should, or bind them properly at the joints with mortar.  So within a short time, since the towers could not in any way withstand the snows and the heat of the sun because of their faulty construction, it came about that the most of them fell into ruin. So were the earlier walls built at the city of Daras.

The engineers of Emperor Justinian diverted the river Cordes and constructed an underground cistern of huge proportions in Dara.

The Emperor Justinian perceived that the Persians, as far as lay in their power, would not permit this outpost of the Romans, which was a menace to them, to stand there, but they would of course assault it with all their might, and would use every device to conduct siege operations on even terms with the city; and that a great number of elephants would come with them, and these would bear wooden towers on their shoulders, under which they would stand, supporting them like foundations; and worse still, that they would be led about wherever the enemy needed them and would bear a fortress which would follow along wherever, according to the judgement of their masters, it should happen to be needed;  and that the enemy would mount these towers and shoot down upon the heads of the Romans inside the city, and attack them from a higher level; that, furthermore they would raise up artificial mounds against them, and would bring up all manner of siege-engines. 
And if any misfortune should befall the city of Daras, which was thrown out like an earthwork before the whole Roman Empire and was obviously placed as a threat to the enemy's land, the disaster for us would not stop there, but a great part of the State would be seriously shaken. For these reasons he wished to surround the place with defences in keeping with its practical usefulness.
The Roman and Persian Empires at the time of Justinian.
For centuries the armies of Persia and Rome fought wars over the Tigris–Euphrates Rivers area of Mesopotamia.  The Eastern Roman fortress of Dara was meant to provide a strong point and a block to Persian forces. 
First of all he rendered the wall (which, as I have said, was very low and therefore very easy for an enemy to assault) both inaccessible and wholly impregnable for an attacking force. For he contracted the original apertures of the battlements by inserting stones and reduced them to very narrow slits, leaving only traces of them in the form of tiny windows, and allowing them to open just enough for a hand to pass through, so that outlets were left through which arrows could be shot against assailants. 
Then above these he added to the wall a height of about thirty feet, not building the addition upon the whole thickness of the wall, lest the foundations should be overloaded by the excessive weight which bore upon them, so that the whole work would suffer some irreparable damage, but he enclosed the space at that level with courses of stones on the outside and constructed a colonnaded stoa (stoa) running all around the wall, and he placed the battlements above this portico, so that the wall really had a double roof throughout; and at the towers there were actually three levels for the men who defended the wall and repelled attacks upon it.  For at about the middle of each tower he added a rounded structure (sphairikon schêma) upon which he placed additional battlements, thus making the wall three-storeyed.
Then he observed that it had come about that many of the towers, as I have said, had fallen into ruin in a short time, yet it was entirely out of the question to pull them down, since the enemy were constantly in the neighbourhood watching their opportunity and continually scouting to see whether they might not find some part of the defences dismantled at any time. But he hit upon the following plan.  He left these towers in place, and outside each of them he cleverly erected another structure in the form of a rectangle, which was built securely and with every possible care, and thus, by means of a second set of defences, he safely enclosed those parts of the wall which had suffered. 
Dara, Necropolis, historical church-cave

But one of the towers, called the "Tower of the Guard," he pulled down at a favourable moment and rebuilt so that it was safe, and everywhere he removed the fear which had arisen from the weakness of the circuit-wall.  He also wisely added sufficient height, in due proportion, to the outworks.  And outside these he dug a moat, not in the way in which men are wont to make them, but only for a short distance and in a novel manner; and the reason for this I shall explain.
The greater part of the defences, as it happens, are in general unapproachable for an attacking party, since they do not stand on level ground and offer no favourable opportunity for assault to an approaching force; but they stand along a steep slope of a rough and precipitous character, where it is not possible for a mine to be dug or for any attack to be made.  But on the side which is turned toward south, the soil is deep and soft and consequently easy to mine, so that it makes the city assailable on this side. 

So in that place he dug a crescent-shaped moat, with sufficient breadth and depth and extending to a great distance, and joined either end of this to the outworks and filled it amply with water, rendering it altogether impassable for the enemy; and on its inner side he set up another outwork. On this the Romans take their stand and keep guard in time of siege, freed from anxiety for the circuit-wall and the other outwork which is thrown out before the main wall.  And it happened that between the main wall and the outwork, at the gate which faces toward the village of Ammodius, there lay a great mound of earth, under cover of which the enemy were able to be in large measure unobserved while making mines against the city under the circuit-wall.  This mound he removed from the spot and he cleared up the place thoroughly, and thus frustrated any secret attack on the wall by the enemy.

Thus did he construct these fortifications. He likewise made reservoirs for water both in the space between the circuit-wall and the outworks and also close by the church which is dedicated to the Apostle Bartholomew, situated toward the west.  And a river also flows from a suburb of the city which is two miles distant from it and is called Cordes. On either side of it rise two cliffs which are exceedingly rugged. This river flows down between the heights on either side of it all the way to the city, carried along the bases of the mountains, and for just this reason it cannot be turned aside or tampered with by the enemy; for there is no flat ground where they might be able to turn it from its course.
And it is drawn into the city in the following way.  They have constructed a large channel extending out from the circuit-wall, and covered the mouth of the conduit with a great number of the thickest possible iron bars, some upright and some horizontal; and thus they have arranged that the water can enter the city without endangering the fortifications.  In this way the water flows into the city and fills its reservoirs and then is conducted wherever the inhabitants wish, and finally flows out at another part of the city, the opening for its discharge being made like that by which it enters the city.
There was a certain Chryses of Alexandria, a skillful master-builder, who served the Emperor in his building operations and built most of the structures erected in the city of Daras and in the rest of the country. . . . . . He also built numerous barracks for the soldiers, in order that they might cause no annoyance whatever to the inhabitants.
Underground church
The old cisterns
Roman cistern in Dara
Originally an East Roman settlement Dara was a strategically important outpost of the Roman Empire and hence fortified by the Emperor Justinian. What makes it an interesting point to visit today is the vast necropolis, housing tombs of kings and families. Only a part rises above ground the rest still awaits excavation.

Justinian’s engineers also accomplished a great feat: they diverted the river Cordes to the city and constructed an underground cistern which takes your breath away because it’s so unexpected.

You descend stone steps, down, down and further down and then looked up at the massive structure which secured the water supply for the city.

(uchicago.edu - Procopius - Buildings)       (Dara - Mesopotamia)       (www.ac-nice.fr)

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