The Dead Cities

Syria has its great Roman-era ruins (foremost among them Apamea, Palmyra and Bosra, the latter two being UNESCO World Heritage Sites–post to come), but as an independent traveler perhaps even more enjoyable are the smaller Roman and Byzantine ruins referred to as the Dead Cities. Located primarily in the Belus Massif around the city of Muraat al-Numan (which is itself located an hour south of Aleppo and is the infamous site of cannibalistic atrocities by the Crusaders) and in the Hauran Plateau south of Damascus, the Dead Cities have survived in large part due to their sturdiness of construction (the stone building materials in those areas being particularly durable) and historical happenstance (relatively sudden decline and abandonment of the towns leading to a good time capsule-like state of preservation).

The Dead Cities, which number in the hundreds (!), are uniquely interesting historically because they include intact domestic and minor small-town buildings in addition to the larger, civic buildings that also survive in larger ruined cities. In the Dead Cities, you can find small churches, homes, olive presses, tombs–all the trappings of a small prosperous (Byzantine-era) country town. To the independent traveler, the Dead Cities provide endless opportunities for exploration (we spent a few days in total but a traveler with greater historical background and time could easily spend weeks). At one site, we saw that the Swiss government had aided in putting together a small circuit of a few of the Dead Cities–as a trekking/camping route, such a trip would truly excel in its opportunities for appreciating the beautiful Syrian countryside, interacting with rural locals and walking through history with essentially no other tourists in sight. We ourselves saw other tourists in only two of the Dead Cities that we visited, even though the ones we visited were among the most popular, and easily accessible by bus and taxi. In a country with fewer sites, these would be major, crowded attractions!

Another, somewhat wild, feature of the Dead Cities is that many are inhabited. After a period of what must have been total abandonment, many of the cities have been resettled in the recent past. While at some sites there is a separation between the old town and the new one, in other cities people live right among or in the ruins. In a few places we saw almost entire Byzantine-era homes, complete with paved courtyards and walls, being lived in, and in the Hauran town of Shahba, Roman-era shops still sell merchandise along a Roman paved street. It is quite incredible to see buildings nearly 2,000 years old still serving their original purpose–the original architects and construction companies would be so proud! The reuse is quite a sight, of course (as at Tartus–see my post of 4.14), but in some cases one wonders whether clearing out modern residents may be better in order to preserve the sites for future generations.

Church, Deir Samaan. Deir Samaan, located downhill from Qalaat Samaan, or the St. Simeon Church Complex (cf. my post of April 21), was founded to service pilgrims. (Sort of like Tirupathi to Tirumala, cf. my post of March 27.) Deir Samaan includes among its ruins many churches and pilgrim lodgings.

Detail of a column in Deir Samaan.

A local man pointed out to us this elaborately decorated crypt, which was not mentioned in any of our fairly detailed guides (note the stone grill on right, mostly covered by dirt and plants). The uncovered portion of the opening was just big enough to pass inside and see places for five sarcophagi, which have been removed. The man who showed us the crypt spoke very little English, but was very excited and insistent on speaking with us, repeating, “One house, one, two, three, four, five; two houses, three houses, four houses, why?” The sun was setting and for a while we had not a clue what he meant, but he was very persistent, and finally with many hand gestures and walking around we finally understood that he was asking us whether we thought that there might be more, unexcavated crypts, along the side of the same hill on which this crypt was found. I’m not quite sure why he thought we would know, but, looking at the terrain, it seemed quite possible, which we conveyed to him (many, many sites in Syria are not fully excavated). He suggested that we fund a dig!

The town of Jeradeh had towers, which may have had a defensive function (cf. my earlier post on the Diaolou of southern China).

The tower above had a cute and still-functioning stone door (note the hinges). We saw stone doors at a couple sites–they move surprisingly well, considering that they’re made of stone, and have obviously stood the test of time, but still seem rather impractical.

A well-ruined building in Jeradeh. Note the rocky terrain of the Belus Massif.

Much of the charm of the Dead Cities is that people still live in and among the ruins. In addition to Byzantine-era houses that are still lived-in, there are larger ruins that have been converted for new uses. This church in Ruweiha is now a pen for animals.

Laundry line-drying.

A monastery or lodging house, with well-preserved porticoes, outside Dana.

Street in Dana. Much like in Tartus (cf. my post of 4.14), you can make out masonry from different periods of construction.

On the left side of the street pictured above, an old arch used as the entrance to a home.

In Bara, an ancient olive press that looks as if it could restart production tomorrow. Bara is overgrown and half-hidden in forest and olive groves, giving the place a sort of Angkor Wat atmosphere.

A pyramidal Roman-era tomb, Bara.

Sarcophagi inside another pyramidal tomb, Bara. Note the crosses–while the pyramid form is originally a pagan design, its builders and occupants were Christian.

Overview of the central town square of Serjilla, fronted by a bath (left) and a tavern (right). Note the well-preserved paving of the square itself. Serjilla is the largest (and most popular) Dead City.

Christian detail, Serjilla.

Carving fragments, Serjilla. Although the best pieces have been carted off to museums, beautiful carvings lie in situ all over ruins in Syria.

3 thoughts on “The Dead Cities

  1. the most complete article on dead cities i found on the net today,and believe me i’ve been searching for hours!!!i study architecture and it seems weird that there isn’t any strictly scientific article on this subject, it seems as if nobody knows why these cities were abandoned so suddenly and they do not want to learn either. keep up the good work, good luck

  2. Very neat. I also wonder why the cities were abandoned so quickly. How do they even know the abandonment was so fast? Because of the state of preservation?

  3. Given the comments, I thought I would provide some additional historical detail. It is believed that the dead cities were settled in the first 250 years or so after Christ, with the cities peaking aorund the sixth century. The decline of the cities is believed to have taken place not at the time of the Arab conqeust in the seventh century but around thet ime of the Abbasids, in the eight. The region is believed to have been totally abandoned by the tenth century, when it became part of the frontier between the Byzantine and Arab worlds. Not sure what the evidence to support all this is!

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