The Dead Cities of Syria: Ancient Abandoned Cities Now Repopulated by Refugees

30 August 2013

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The Syrian civil war continues its tragic evolution with the death toll surpassing 100,000 in June 2013. It is the latest of many upheavals the country has been through since its formation as a state.  As the conflict escalates, much of what remains of Syria’s long and unique history has also, inevitably, come under threat.  Perhaps the best known, the crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers has been shelled while the giant waterwheels of Hama are in daily peril. While the preservation of human life is forefront in the minds of any person concerned about the ongoing bloodshed, these ancient sites represent history in situ which is of immense importance not only to Syrians but to the world.

Jabal Al Zawiya, Syria
In the northwest of the country are lesser known reminders of past turmoil and upheaval. Over 700 abandoned settlements bear the collective name The Dead Cities of Syria.  The name might perhaps be considered ironic, bearing in mind what is happening in the country’s modern cities at the moment.  Yet these dead cities have become home to thousands of refugees, who have fled from the civil war and now live in the caves beneath the ruins.  Some have even dug up the ancient stone graves and are using them as makeshift homes.  These pictures show the Dead Cities before the war as well as a number of their new residents. There is little or no access to places like this while war rages so the true nature of the devastation will not be known for some time.


As far as we can ascertain, only one Western news crew has managed to get to the area to report on the situation - the report is above (apologies for the ad - it comes with the embed).

These abandoned municipalities scatter the landscape and contain the remains of a confident and sophisticated culture – one which disappeared over five hundred years ago.  Left behind, incredible and ancient structures, a testament to the ingenuity and piety of the people who once lived here.  Yet now there is evidence of bulldozers moving in, and mosaics and other artifacts being dug up to be sold on the thriving illegal antiquities market.

Image Credit Flickr User Hovac
Image Credit Flickr User Isawnyu
The Church of Saint Simeon Stylites is perhaps the most famous of the buildings in the area.  It is the oldest Byzantine church in the world and dates back to around 475 CE.  It commemorates Saint Simeon who sat atop a high pillar to preach to those who came from far and near to hear him.  This vast martyrium has almost as much floor space as the Haga Sophia in Istanbul (which was, of course, then called Constantinople).  The church has received extensive damage since the civil war began – and graffiti, shell damage and bullet holes are all evident.

Image Credit Flickr User Hovic
Image Credit Flickr User Allesandra Kocman
Saint Simeon's pillar is still in place, transported to the church after his death. Yet over the many centuries, pilgrims have chipped away at it for souvenirs until the pillar now is little more than a boulder.

Jabal Al Zawiya, Syria
Image Credit Flickr User Hovic
Image Credit Flickr User Hovic
Image Credit Flickr User Hovic
Between the cities of Aleppo and Hama there is a limestone massif and it is here these ancient settlements were built by their once prosperous peoples. The area is about thirty kilometers in width yet is several times longer – extending to almost 140 kilometers in length. It isn’t hard, considering this thin, long concentration of settlements to divine the reason for their presence – trade.

Image Credit Flickr User Hovic
Image Credit Flickr User JonBrew
Image Credit Flickr User Hovic
Image Credit Flickr User Hovic
The names of the cities are numerous: Jaradeh, Jabal Al Zawiya, Telanissos, Bara, Surkania, Dar Qita, Ruweiha, Surkania.  All are silent witness to a civilization now vanished in to the footnotes of history. Their importance was, before the war, somewhat blithely underestimated by modern locals who still picked around them, occasionally planting small olive groves among the ruins.Youths would sometimes climb them as a dare - did you notice the two figures in the photograph above?  Now, however, the ruins of this long forgotten civilization are all that protect many from the often ferocious shelling this area experiences.

Jabal Al Zawiya, Syria
Image Credit Flickr User Troels Myrup
Image Credit Flickr User Troels Myrup
Image Credit Flickr User Hovic
Trade brought in gold and silver, which was used to fund the building of this exquisite Christian Byzantine architecture.  The ethnic makeup of the citizens of these cities would have been diverse, as is so often the case on a trade route. Yet the practiced religion of the cities’ populations seems to have been overwhelmingly Christian. A great many of the surviving buildings are churches.

Image Credit Flickr User ibontxto
Image Credit Flickr User Hovic
Jabal Al Zawiya, Syria
The nature of the settlements has been a matter of debate for many years. Some argue that these forgotten cities were built by a prosperous and thriving peasant class which slowly strung out its line of influence. It is true that there are very few specifically urban features along the length of the settlements although sturdy domestic architecture has weathered the centuries well.

Image Credit Flickr User Illustir
Image Credit Flickr User Hovic
Others argue that these were, indeed, cities rather than a string of peasant collectives. The main produce of the area was olive oil and the international demand for this valuable commodity would have ensured infrastructure comparable to other towns and cities towards the end of the era of antiquity.

Image Credit Flickr User CharlesFred
Image Credit Flickr User Seier + Seier
Image Credit Flickr User Seier + Seier
Jabal Al Zawiya, Syria
Serjilla and Bara, which were the best preserved of the cities, would seem to support this opinion. There is a bath house in the former, always a sign of the prosperity of a city and was built around 470 CE when Christianity was well established.  There is also a meeting place for men, a kind of Byzantine gentleman’s club where important decisions would be made. Its main source of income was grapes and olives, grown in the fertile soil of the natural basin in which it was built.  Now, it is believed that many of the buildings have been ripped apart to build smaller shelters. The small local town of al-Bara has been bombed in to the ground and its inhabitants have fled to Serjilla.

Image Credit Flickr User James Gordon LA
Image Credit Flickr User James Gordon
Bara, on the other hand, seems to have been a military base. Perhaps for this reason it survived longer than the other cities. It was conquered by crusaders in 1098 and taken back by Muslim forces thirty years later.  It was a severe earthquake later in the twelfth century which forced its eventual abandonment. Bara’s retention of population is unusual in the area.

Image Credit Flickr User Illustir
Image Credit Flickr User James Gordon
One thing is for sure: the inhabitants of most of these lost cities packed up and left slowly but surely in the sixth and seventh centuries.  The area had been conquered by the Arabs and this meant that trade routes shifted.  Warfare did not do for these incredible settlements but economics. The population declined and dwindled to the point that they were eventually deserted.  As much as the first inhabitants of these dead cities left gradually, their new citizens are arriving daily and with great haste.

Image Credit Flcirk User Groundhopping Mersberg
Image Credit Flickr User Groundhopping Mersberg
It is almost comforting to reflect that the denizens of these places, the original names of which are long forgotten were not put to the sword. Rather they headed towards more prosperous cities along newer trade routes, there to settle hopefully in peace.  What chance for those who now make their homes in these ruins?

Image Credit Flickr User Hovic
As the Arab Spring began in early 2011 the dead cities of Syria became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Perhaps when civil stability returns the local people around the dead cities will resume giving those willing to go off the beaten track a warm welcome.  Yet it remains to be seen whether, in fact, the dead cities - like so many of the people of Syria - survive this latest threat to their existence.

Image Credit Flickr User Tom$
Jabal Al Zawiya, Syria

Please note: all pictures of refugees shown here were taken in the dead city of Jabal Al Zawiya by Michal Przedlacki. Please visit his photostream on Flickr.
First Image Credit Illustir



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