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The Dead Cities of Northern Syria

Ancient ruins in northern Syria hold keys to life in the Byzantine era.

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.

On a hill overlooking a small valley past the town of Deir el-Tizzeh is the complex known as St. Simeon, or Qal’at Semaan (Arabic for “Simeon’s Castle”), a large shrine containing the pillar of St. Simeon Stylites, churches, a cloister, a hostel and a baptistery, among other buildings.

Simeon was born in 386, the son of a farmer in Cilicia in south-central Turkey He embarked on the monastic life at the age of 16 and wound up after 10 years in a monastic community at Telanisos, present day Deir Semaan. After a few years he was grudgingly granted permission by his superiors to express his ascetic devotion by living on top of a pillar, the height of which is believed to have been 60 feet.

Simeon’s widespread fame attracted pilgrims from as far away as England, Gaul and Italy, though his form of asceticism was almost exclusively an Eastern phenomenon. It never found much favor in the West.

Non-Christian Persians and Arabs also held Simeon in high esteem. For 27 years he preached and provided theological counsel, literally from on high. Wrapped in sheepskins, he slept briefly, ate little and stood for most of the day on a six-foot wide capital. After his death in 459, a cruciform shrine was built around his pillar, the eastern wing serving as a church for pilgrims.

Other ascetics followed St. Simeon, and the cult of Syrian Stylites (“of a pillar” in Greek) developed. There is documentation of a hermit in Palestine who dwelt in a cave on top of a mountain and who, for 25 years, never turned his face to the west, it being the direction of the setting sun; the west was a symbol of death and of Satan. In opposition to the west, the rising of the sun in the east was considered symbolic of the resurrection of Christ.

Another historian wrote of a hermit who had passed 10 years in a tub suspended in mid-air from poles. St. Alypius is said to have stood upright for 53 years, When his feet were no longer able to support him, he descended from his pillar, lay down on his side, and spent the remaining 14 years of his life in that position.

Probably the best justification of these excesses of austerity was that, in an age of corruption and social decadence, they impressed the need of penance more than anything else could have upon the minds and imagination of Eastern Christians.

Several other sites among the Dead Cities contain remnants of pillars and stone carvings that depict the stylites and their pillars. Mementos sold to pilgrims visiting St. Simeon portray the monk on top of his pillar and are part of the Syrian National Museum’s collection.

The pilgrim shrine is the center of attention at St. Simeon, with its stately entrance porch, wonderfully carved, and, of course, the remains of the famous pillar. It is now about the size of a bulging phone booth after centuries of relic seekers chipping away at it.

From the shrine there is a commanding view of the surrounding valleys and the adjacent village of Deir Semaan, whose modern buildings mingle haphazardly with Byzantine pilgrim hostels, cloisters, churches and monasteries. East of St. Simeon and Deir Semaan is Burjke, a village with several Byzantine ruins, including a lovely church. Further along is the Kurdish village of Fafertine, its principal claim to fame the ruins of a church believed to be the oldest in northern Syria. The edifice dates to 372, but only the apse remains.

The road back toward Aleppo goes by several other sites, some deserted like Kharab Shams and Kallota, and others such as Basofan and Burj Haydar where ruins have been overrun by modern structures. Just off the Aleppo-Lattakia road near Urum Al Joz, there is another area thick with Dead Cities. One of the most interesting is Serjilla, a silent city in a small valley noted for its baths and villas.

Walking down a gentle slope one passes tombs hewn from great stone blocks whose tops are all ajar. Near the valley floor is the bath building, complete with a sudatorium (steam bath) and a frigidarium (cold bath). Adjacent is a graceful building with a double veranda thought to have been a meeting place. An American expedition working at the site at the turn of the century dubbed it “the cafe.”

Several villages, nearly intact, stand on the far slope of the valley. Stone lintels bear decorations (crosses, flowers, olive branches) that achieve elegance in their simplicity and radiate a human warmth in this rock-strewn, barren place. It is likely that Serjilla was once a lively town peopled by olive growers and stone hewers, landowners and merchants who, after their labors, lounged in the baths, chatted in the cafe and retired to their homes at the end of the day for a good, hearty Byzantine meal.

Anthony Toth travels extensively in the Middle East.

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