The Dead Cities of Northern Syria

text and photos by Anthony B. Toth

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Syria has seen the rise and fall of many civilizations, Aramaean, Roman and Islamic. Throughout the country stand the remains of ages past whose names – Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra – conjure rich in the stuff of legend and myth.

There is a little-known region in northcentral Syria that speaks with eloquence and depth of the Byzantine era, when a Christian empire flourished around the eastern Mediterranean. The remnants of the period are called, somewhat mysteriously, the Dead Cities of the North. No one knows how many sites exist, but estimates range from several hundred to more than a thousand.

Armen Mazloumian, who remembers family picnics at the ruins of St. Simeon Stylites when he was a boy, developed a serious interest in the Dead Cities about seven years ago. The manager of Aleppo’s historic Baron Hotel, he has since become the resident expert on the Dead Cities, having visited more than 300 of the sites in his spare time.

The gray limestone boulders covering the hills and hollows to the horizon and beyond give the area around the Dead Cities (called Belus in antiquity) a haunting, moon-like quality. Many sites seem to have been standing undisturbed by man since they were built from the first through the seventh centuries after Christ.

There are villas in deserted hilltop settlements whose walls stand as solidly as the day they were built, with beautifully carved stone lintels and archways. Rich landowners from the plains surrounding the Belus built seasonal villas on the limestone slopes and planted olive trees (the only crop suitable to the terrain) in the first century A.D. Villages and towns sprang up, producing olive oil that was traded with Antioch and Apamea (a major city to the south) for household goods. When the locals were not tending orchards and pressing olives, they quarried and cut the abundant local limestone, creating fine ornamentation for their churches, markets and homes.

The communities reached their peak in the fourth through the sixth centuries, after which a war with Persia (603-630) and the blocking of the Mediterranean dried up the olive oil trade, forcing the inhabitants to pack up and leave. The olive trees died, the soil eroded and most of the region became barren.

In some places old towns have been overrun by modern constructions, and ancient blocks and lintels have been used in new houses. Many of the Dead Cities, however, retain a ghost-town eeriness they must have had when the Marquis de Vogue brought them to Western attention more than a century ago. He said that upon seeing the cities, “the traveler is carried back to a lost civilization whose every secret is revealed to him.”

The ruins of Mushabbak arc about 20 minutes outside of Aleppo, on the road to St. Simeon. On the crest of a hill there stands a basilica that is one of the best preserved churches from the end of the fifth century. While traces of other structures are visible (some are occupied by shepherds), the basilica is the most interesting, with its walls almost entirely intact. Its two rows of columns are topped with capitals in a variety of styles. The remains of the saints pillar can be seen beyond the right entrance.

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Tags: Syria Pilgrimage/pilgrims Architecture