26 July 1996
DEAD CITIES OF NORTHERN SYRIA ;
We decided to cover the dead cities of northern Syria today. We have decided to skip the Armenian Quarter as there was little time left and we had seen enough of churches in Damascus. On recommendation of Ahmad, we took up a half-day tour with Hotel Zahert al-Rabih [Marry Street, P.O. Box 2208, Tel : (021)212790] for about L.S. 800. This was the first time the backpacker’s hotel has organised this tour. Basically, the hotel would only provide a mini-bus, a driver and a guide (who didn’t know much about the archaeological sites himself), and they will bring you to any place the group wants to go (with prior discussion). And so early morning we set off, together with a German and a Czech student.
The Dead Cities is a most unusual region. More than a thousand years ago, this was a land of prosperity, with 300 little towns and villages across northwestern Syria, in what is today Idleb and Aleppo Mouhafazats (provinces). The Christian inhabitants here grow wheat, cultivate vine and engaged in active trade that stretched across the region. However, in the 7th century A.D., the region was suddenly abandoned by its inhabitants. People shifted elsewhere, fields left to the weeds, and churches and houses left as they were. The entire region became empty. And because there weren’t any warfare, the buildings were not destroyed or burnt down, other than those affected by the ravages of time and weather. This presented archaeologists with well-preserved relics of everyday life in the Byzantine Empire.
Till this day, nobody really knows why the locals abandoned the region.
There are many theories, the most probable of which was the economic decline
of this region. The decades of continuous wars with Persia, the most
serious of which resulted in the Persian capture (with the associated looting
and raping) of Greater Syria including Jerusalem and Antioch, had caused
great economic upheaval in the eastern part of the Byzantine Empire.
Although the Byzantines had subsequently recaptured the region, the
empire was so drained of resources that it could no longer defend itself
from the Islamic conquest soon after. The trade routes had since
shifted to more secure regions and the lack of proper irrigation (caused
by the lack of funds by a bankrupted central government) led to the decline
in agricultural efficiency. All these led to the general deterioration
of standard of living and the abandonment of the towns and villages.
|Most of the exhibits seemed to have a thick layer of dust, and appeared to have been neglected for years. Colours have faded away and even captions have fallen apart. The only mosaic that was brightly painted and well maintained was one depicting President Assad, displayed prominently at the entrance.|
The first place we visited, however, was not any of the Dead Cities, but a Mosaic Museum at Maa’ret Al-Nua’man, a little town (present day town, not a dead city !) in Idleb Province. The Museum, housed in an Ottoman khan (inn) contains an interesting collection of Byzantine mosaic, many of which once graced the floors and walls of stately mansions and palaces of northern Syria. Most of the exhibits seemed to have a thick layer of dust, and appeared to have been neglected for years. Colours have faded away and even captions have fallen apart. The only mosaic that was brightly painted and well maintained was one depicting President Assad, displayed prominently at the entrance.
“The north of Syria seems scarcely Arab at all - half the people with fairish hair and blue eyes : said to be descendants of Crusaders, but anyway they might be sturdy peasants in the Alpes.”
Freya Stark, Letter, 31 May 1937, in The Coasts of Incense, 1953
The northwest of Syria is an ethnic mosaic. Years of foreign conquests have resulted in multi-coloured complexion and hair. Many here have blond hair, and a German commented to me that these might just be descendants of the invading Crusaders. But that’s not all, as I would soon meet not only Sunni Muslims with European ancestry, but meet other peoples such as the Druze and Kurds as well.
This region appears to be a fertile one, with miles of flat wheat fields,
and industrious farmers harvesting. Looked a little like the Mid-West
of America, but less than 50 km away were the Ansariyyeh Mountains, home
to the Alawite sect of which President Assad is a member of. The
Alawite are a secretive people. The sect was established in the 10th
century and was based on the deification of Ali, the Prophet’s
son-in-law. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ali is considered
“one member of a trinity corresponding roughly to the Christian Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit.” They consider the Pillars of Islam [the 5
duties of Muslims - profession of faith (shahada), praying 5 times a day
(salat), giving of alms (zakat), fasting during Ramadan (sawn) and making
pilgrimages to Mecca (hajj)] mere symbols and not compulsory practices.
They celebrate some Islamic as well as Christian holidays and many of their
rites are secret. As a minority Shiite sect, the Alawites often found
themselves despised and discriminated by the majority Sunnis. This
situation was reversed in 1971 when Assad, an Alawite himself, became president.
Since then, President has filled the hierarchy and the army with Alawites
so as to protect his regime. Whether this will continue beyond his
death remains to be seen. I wonder what will happen since many Syrians
resent the Alawite political control of the country.
|Stone sarcophagus with elaborate carvings are all over the place, most of them open. Perhaps the local inhabitants took the remains of their ancestors with them as well when they left. Or perhaps the tombs were looted after the departure of the guardians. Nobody knows...|
After leaving the Museum, we sped towards the hilly plains bordering Turkish Hatay. We soon entered the area of the Dead Cities. Every few hundred metres we came across some rubble, an old barn, or ruins of some ancient churches. Over the next few hours, we visited quite a few ruined towns - Al Bara (noted for its unusual pyramid tombs) , Serdjilla, Qalbe Lbrse and Qirbirze, plus some nameless ones. Apart from a few striking ones, I can hardly tell them apart now. Located on wind-swept plains with seemingly endless horizons, these dignified ruins conveyed a sense of desolation. As Buddha says, nothing is permanent in this world. Prosperity doesn’t last forever. Even stone buildings collapse with time if neglected. Many of the lesser buildings in these Dead Cities are nothing but ruins today. Larger ones survive, with perhaps all four walls, but most roofs had long gone. Stone sarcophagus with elaborate carvings are all over the place, most of them open. Perhaps the local inhabitants took the remains of their ancestors with them as well when they left. Or perhaps the tombs were looted after the departure of the guardians. Nobody knows...
We also visited the pilgrimage church of Qalbe Lhrse, located in a mixed Druze-Kurdish village. The church is a typical Romanesque Byzantine church. What attracted were the inhabitants of this village. These Druzes and Kurds wore black low crotch pants similar to those I saw in Urfa last year. Those familiar with Middle East and Turkey probably already know who the Kurds are. So I shall briefly explain the more “exotic” people - the Druzes.
The Druzes are a little known people in Syria, Lebanon and Israel.
Their religion was established in the 9th century by a preacher,
Darazi, and a Persian mystic named Hamza ibn Ali ibn Ahmad. They
believe that the Egyptian caliph al-Hakim is divine - something that all
other Muslims find very blasphemous. Hence the Druze has always been
subjected to discrimination and persecution, not unlike the Alawites.
Outsiders call them Druze, after their preacher Darazi, while they refer
to themselves as Mowahhidoon. To protect themselves (and partly because
they feel that outsiders will never understand them), they often pretend
to be members of other religions. The tenants of their religion are
also kept secret but anthropological sources say that they are monotheistic,
i.e., they believe in one God. They also believe in Transmigration
of the soul, i.e., the theory of rebirth.
Thirty-six years on a pillar
The Qalaat Samaan or St Simeon Basilica was our next destination.
Built in 490 A.D., it was one of the biggest and most important churches
in the world during the Middle Ages. In the 10th century, fortifications
were built around it and hence known as “Qalaat” or castle. Pilgrims
from afar came here to hear St Simeon of Stylites preach. What’s
so extraordinary about this saint ?
|Food is delivered up to these holy men by monks and devotees. (I wonder how they get about their daily digestive business and the products ! The books I read never seem to mention this.)|
As his name implies, he’s the first of the “Stylites” - Christian ascetics who stay day and night on pillars or columns, exposed to the elements. These people live in hardship, spend their time praying and sometimes preach to visitors or perform mass, as St Simeon did on his pillar at the Qalaat. To prevent themselves from falling, there are railings around that very restricted area on the pillar and some. Like St Simeon, have iron collars round their necks. Food is delivered up to these holy men by monks and devotees. (I wonder how they get about their daily digestive business and the products ! The books I read never seem to mention this.) St Simeon sat for 36 years on a 15 metre tall - this was not considered long - a St Alypius reportedly spent 67 years on his column ! I wonder if modern Olympic athletes can do that. Such practices were common during the early Byzantine days and it spread throughout Syria, Asia Minor and Greece. The Encyclopedia Britannica has something interesting to say about this strange practice :
“The practice never spread to the West. Only one abortive attempt was recorded: St. Gregory of Tours in his Historia Francorum (late 6th century) described meeting St. Wulflaicus, then a deacon at Yvoi (near Carignan, Ardennes), who had tried living atop a column but was soon forced by church authorities to descend.”
Perhaps modern daredevils should try this…I remember some jokers who tried to walk on a rope on the Eiffel Tower…maybe they should be informed about the stylites…
In any case, St Simeon was the most famous of them all. Tales
of this virtuous man and his miracles led to many visitors to him, and
the excessive demands of these visitors soon forced the saint to move onto
a column in a remote area northwest of Aleppo. However, with this
extraordinary move, tales of his austerities and miracles became even more
widespread and the Qalaat became a mass pilgrimage site. What a backfire
! And so we have the grandeur of Qalaat Samaan of today.
What remains of St Simeon’s pillar today is nothing more than a huge rock on a platform in the middle of the Basilica. Pilgrims over the centuries had chipped away the pillar as holy souvenir. Apparently pilgrims of those days were no different from those of today. Somehow there were no attempts to stop them… But even in its ruined state, the Basilica remains beautiful, with its graceful arches and impressive facades.
Back to Aleppo : The Museum and the Citadel
After St Simeon, we returned to Aleppo and visited the Aleppo Archaeological Museum. An impressive museum with lots of Mesopotamian relics found in northern Syria. The Museum entrance itself is a manifestation of Mesopotamian glories of northern Syria - statues of stern looking gods from Tell Halaf guard the entrance. Again, there was so much to see with so little time.
After the Museum, we rushed to the Citadel. It was too late to
visit the interior and so we contend ourselves to the external walls, which
were very impressive. Nureddin’s citadel was built on a hill rising in
the city central and one could see the walls of the citadel from afar.
The evening was spent in one of the few cafes just outside the citadel,
watching the sunset of Aleppo and old Aleppians smoking the water-pipe.
Later that night, we took the night bus to Amman, Jordan.
|This is an ancient land with age-old conflicts… only time will tell whether they will be resolved. When peace comes, perhaps a new invasion will come here - it’ll be one that the Syrian people will welcome. I’m referring to the hordes of modern tourism - perhaps then, people like Mohammed whom I met at Krak, will be able to find a job they are worthy of…|
As the bus entered the Yarmuk Valley near the Jordanian border, I looked out at the darkness of the night. This was where on Aug. 20, 636 A.D., Khalid ibn al-Walid, commander of the Arab forces, won a decisive victory against a numerically much more superior Byzantine army under Theodorus, and thus securing the land of Syria for Islam and the Arabs for all eternality. I remember too the armies of the Assyrians, Persians, Egyptians, Macedonians, Romans, Turks and French - all of whom had passed this region. How much of their glories remain today ? This is an ancient land with age-old conflicts… only time will tell whether they will be resolved. When peace comes, perhaps a new invasion will come here - it’ll be one that the Syrian people will welcome. I’m referring to the hordes of modern tourism - perhaps then, people like Mohammed whom I met at Krak, will be able to find a job they are worthy of…
Next : PASSING BY JORDAN - A
CRIME OF PASSION AND HOLLYWOOD GLORIES
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