Scattered across the vast Limestone Massif, in the northwest of Syria, between the Orontes and Afrin Rivers to the west and the Aleppo/Hama highway to the east, are more than 700 abandoned settlements of Roman and Byzantium era dating back to the 5th and 8th centuries. These so called “Dead Cities” —a name given by some early European explorers— exist in a remarkable state of preservation. Largely intact are buildings and houses, hundreds of pagan temples, churches and Christian sanctuaries, funerary monuments, bathhouses, and more.
These villages or towns were once major agricultural producers of wheat, olives, olive oil, grapes and wine. Then the climate changed. Drought and increased temperature caused the land to become unproductive. At the same time, conquest by the Arabs changed trade routes and these villages lost the majority of the business. Eventually, the villages were abandoned and the settlers headed for other cities that were flourishing under the Arabs.
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One of the largest and most impressive of the “dead cities” is Al-Bara. It is spread over 6 square kilometer and located 90 km southwest of Aleppo. Al-Bara was unaffected by the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, but fell to Crusaders in the 11th century who held the town until it was conquered by the Mamluks in the 12th century. An earthquake in 1157 left the town uninhabitable.
The ruins of Al-Bara include two large pyramidal-roofed, a number of churches, a two-story monastery, a Crusader-era fort Qalaat Abu Safian, as well as a wine press building and an olive press.
Close to Al-Bara is another “dead city”, Serjilla, famous for its beautiful remains of Roman baths, which shows how prosperous the region had been. In another abandoned city, Kharab Shams, is a wonderful basilica, one of the oldest best-preserved Christian structures in the Levant, dating to the fourth century. Yet another well-preserved church from the second half of the fifth century is located in the village of Mushabbak.
The villages are now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
“The relict cultural landscape of the villages also constitutes an important illustration of the transition from the ancient pagan world of the Roman Empire to Byzantine Christianity. Vestiges illustrating hydraulic techniques, protective walls and Roman agricultural plot plans furthermore offer testimony to the inhabitants' mastery of agricultural production,” says the description on UNESCO’s website.
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