Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land - 29/04/2001 info: custodia@netvision.net.il

Christian Antiquities in Syria:
THE DEAD CITIES

by Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land

The vitality of Christianity in the first centuries is revealed in a striking way when one visits the ruins of the Dead Cities in northern Syria. Altogether there are 820 centres of habitation, which were established between the 2nd and the 7th centuries of the Christian Era and are now mostly abandoned. These cities are situated in a triangular area of 8,500 square kilometres, enclosed by the cities of Aleppo, Apamea and Antioch. Abandoned at the beginning of the 7th century, the Dead Cities nowadays form a vast collection of venerable ruins, preserving the traces of a little known Christian civilization, which, in its time, spread its beneficent influence throughout the Mediterranean Basin.

Apart from the ruins of Pompey a city buried by volcanic ash from Mt. Vesuvius following its eruption in 79 A.D. the Dead Cities are probably the best-preserved remains of ancient times. The houses survive with all their fittings: balconies, galleries, chairs, basins, troughs, presses and vats for oil and wine, cisterns and family tombs all carved out of stone. On the doorposts of the houses, there are inscriptions imploring God to protect the occupants. In a large house in Dalloza, there is an inscription that says: "Lord, protect this house and all those living in it, Amen" and in Deir Senbol, one inscription reads: "To Christ the Victory, Away Satan!"

Hundreds of churches have survived from this era and some of them are in an excellent state of preservation, such as the famous Basilica of St. Simeon the Stylite, which was erected in the fifth century in honour of this Syrian Saint. Designed to be able to hold multitudes of pilgrims, the Basilica successfully combines the shape of an octagon with that of a Greek cross. The column of the Ascetic Saint stands in the centre of the octagon. These churches bear witness to the vigorous religious life of the inhabitants of these ancient cities. "During the 5th and 6th centuries writes the historian A. Grabar the number of churches in Syria was higher than in any other Province of the Empire at that time".

In addition to the churches, there are hundreds of monasteries among the ruins of the Dead Cities. It is rare to find a centre of habitation without the remains of a monastery in the vicinity. It should not be forgotten that monks were the driving-force behind the evangelisation of rural areas. The monastery, as an institution, was so integral to the rural way of life that it was impossible to think of a population centre without its own monastery. To illustrate their abundance, we only need to mention the region of Jebel Baricha, where, in an area of only 210 square kilometres, there were 63 small monasteries accommodating a total of about 800 monks.

The Syrian Art that we find in the Dead Cities did not disappear without transmitting its rich vitality to posterity. Just as it is undeniable that the Syrian artists of this region contributed to the development of proto-Islamic Art, so also is it true that their influence was felt in Europe, and can be seen especially in Art of the pre-Romanesque period. It is probable that this influence reached the Latin West, by means of commercial and religious transactions. As evidence of this interaction, it is enough to remember that between the years 682 and 741 A.D., there were six Popes of Syrian origin: Leo II (682-683), John V (685-686), Sergius I (687-701), Sisinnius (708), Constantine (708-715) and Gregory III (731-741).



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Created / Updated Sunday, April 29, 2001 at 08:24:52 by John Abela ofm
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