The Syrian civil war continues its tragic evolution with the death toll surpassing 100,000 in June 2013. It is the latest of many upheavals the country has been through since its formation as a state. As the conflict escalates, much of what remains of Syria’s long and unique history has also, inevitably, come under threat. Perhaps the best known, the crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers has been shelled while the giant waterwheels of Hama are in daily peril. While the preservation of human life is forefront in the minds of any person concerned about the ongoing bloodshed, these ancient sites represent history in situ which is of immense importance not only to Syrians but to the world.
In the northwest of the country are lesser known reminders of past turmoil and upheaval. Over 700 abandoned settlements bear the collective name The Dead Cities of Syria. The name might perhaps be considered ironic, bearing in mind what is happening in the country’s modern cities at the moment. Yet these dead cities have become home to thousands of refugees, who have fled from the civil war and now live in the caves beneath the ruins. Some have even dug up the ancient stone graves and are using them as makeshift homes. These pictures show the Dead Cities before the war as well as a number of their new residents. There is little or no access to places like this while war rages so the true nature of the devastation will not be known for some time.
As far as we can ascertain, only one Western news crew has managed to get to the area to report on the situation – the report is above (apologies for the ad – it comes with the embed).
These abandoned municipalities scatter the landscape and contain the remains of a confident and sophisticated culture – one which disappeared over five hundred years ago. Left behind, incredible and ancient structures, a testament to the ingenuity and piety of the people who once lived here. Yet now there is evidence of bulldozers moving in, and mosaics and other artifacts being dug up to be sold on the thriving illegal antiquities market.
The Church of Saint Simeon Stylites is perhaps the most famous of the buildings in the area. It is the oldest Byzantine church in the world and dates back to around 475 CE. It commemorates Saint Simeon who sat atop a high pillar to preach to those who came from far and near to hear him. This vast martyrium has almost as much floor space as the Haga Sophia in Istanbul (which was, of course, then called Constantinople). The church has received extensive damage since the civil war began – and graffiti, shell damage and bullet holes are all evident.
Saint Simeon’s pillar is still in place, transported to the church after his death. Yet over the many centuries, pilgrims have chipped away at it for souvenirs until the pillar now is little more than a boulder.