Dead Cities of Syria

The environs west and southwest of Aleppo in northern Syria are home to the "Dead Cities" abandoned ruins of some 700 Byzantine towns, villages and monastic settlements. These ruins are among the greatest treasuries of Byzantine architecture to be found anywhere in the ancient world.

Deserted and desolate today, the region of the Dead Cities once supported an immense and prosperous population, for it was rich in olive groves and was the hinterland of the great Christian city of Antioch.

The towns and villages ("cities" is a misnomer but sounds more dramatic) lack the grid plan of ancient cities; the "Dead Cities" instead seem to be settlements that developed organically in the countryside.

After the Islamic conquest of the Byzantine world, the political and demographical center moved from Antioch to Damascus and this region, which depended on Antioch for its prosperity, went into decline. Its inhabitants moved away, leaving behind ghost towns. In the absence of invasions or natural disasters, these towns and villages remained remarkably well-preserved over the centuries.

Today, very little of Antioch survives but the Dead Cities still litter the landscape with astonishingly well-preserved basilicas, monasteries, villas and baths. Indeed, the Dead Cities of Syria provide "one of the best pictures of the world of Late Antiquity to be found anywhere."[1] Below is an index of the Dead Cities profiled on Sacred Destinations so far, all of which have notable ruins of Byzantine churches.

* Al-Bara

Al-Bara (also called Bara) is the most extensive of the Dead Cities of northern Syria and one of the last to be abandoned. It held out as a bastion of Eastern Christianity until the arrival of the Crusaders in the 11th century.

History

After humble beginnings in the 4th century AD, Al-Bara grew into one of the most important centers of wine and olive oil production in the area.

Surrounded by rich, fertile land and situated along the north-south trade route between Antioch and Apamea, Al-Bara prospered and grew, even after the trade routes shifted in the 7th century and most other settlements were abandoned.

Al-Bara weathered the Islamic conquest and remained predominantly Byzantine Christian, boasting its own bishop who was subordinate to the Archbishop of Antioch. Eastern Christianity finally came to an end in Al-Bara with the occupation of the Latin Crusaders in the late 11th century. It was from Al-Bara that the Crusaders embarked on the horrible cannibalistic episode at Ma’arat an-Nu’aman in 1098. By 1125, the Crusaders were driven out of the area and Al-Bara came under Muslim control. It was finally abandoned in the late 12th-century, probably because of an earthquake.

What to See

There is no obvious route through the site of Al-Bara and the land is densely covered with trees and undergrowth. The land is still fertile here, and some small plots among the stones are still worked for olives, grapes and apricots.

The ruins of Al-Bara cover 6 sq km and incorporate numerous large villas, three monasteries, and as many as a dozen Byzantine churches. Five churches can still be seen amongst the ruins today.

The most striking structures are a pair of pyramid tombs, standing 200m apart. These monumental tombs, decorated with carved acanthus leaves, testify to the one-time wealth of this city.

The larger pyramid still houses five sealed and decorated sarcophagi. Continuing south past the pyramid tombs, there is an underground tomb with three arches and a large, well-preserved monastery.

Fafertin

Fafterin is one of the Dead Cities of northern Syria. It is notable for being home to the second-oldest church in Syria (after Dura Europos), dating from 372 AD.

Jerada

(Also spelled Jaradah) is one of the Byzantine "Dead Cities" near Aleppo in northern Syria. It is close to the Aleppo- Hama highway, which it overlooks from a position up on low rocky hills.

The ruins of Jerada include extensive remains of upper-class houses, a 6- story watchtower and a 5th-century Byzantine cathedral. Column capitals and lintels feature simple geometric designs reminiscent of Visigothic art done in Spain around the same time (such as in Cordoba).

Unlike most of these ghost towns, Jerada is partially occupied, with some of the big old houses serving as barns for nearby modern villagers.

Kharab Shams

Located on the eastern slopes of the Jebel Sima'an not far from the Aleppo- Azaz road, Kharab Shams is notable for its particularly well preserved Byzantine basilica dating from the 5th century AD. Ancient carvings, Kharab Shams, Syria Lintel with ancient carvings. Kharab Shams was also inhabited in the pre-Classical period, which accounts for some mysterious ancient carvings on one of the standing lintels.

Serjilla (Also spelled Sarjella) gets Lonely Planet's vote as the "most eerie and evocative" of all the Dead Cities of northern Syria. It also has the greatest number of semi-complete buildings.

Serjilla has been deserted for almost 1500 years, but its stone buildings remain sharp-edged and the surrounding area is carpeted in short grass. In many ways it looks as if the villagers have only just left.

The center of the town has a two-storey tavern and a large bathhouse. The bathhouse is austere and stripped of its original mosaics, but the very existence of a Christian-era (built 473 AD) bathhouse is unique and interesting.

Next door is an andron (men's meeting place) and further east is a small ruined church. Spreading outward from the center are remains of private houses and villas, connected by narrow grassy lanes.

Serjilla is located in the Jebel Riha, 65 km north of Hama and 80 km southwest of Aleppo, close to the ruins of Al- Bara.

 

Haifaa Mafalani

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