from a Basalt door from the Hauran, SW Syria, 3rd century.
The garden of the National Museum in Damascus has many
sculptures and a particularly interesting collection of basalt
doors. Many of the structures from this region, while
interesting from an architectural standpoint, are devoid of
decoration outside of the doors. This tradition can be
clearly traced from later antiquity and survives into the early
Christian period. This door depicts two pre-Christian
figures. The male bears rays suggesting he represents a
solar deity. The woman next to him appears to be his
from the National Museum, Damascus, 3rd century. The
face of this figure is rendered in what can be described
as a Classical style, though many would suggest it is
‘provincial’ due to the simplicity of the form.
Basalt is not nearly as versatile as marble, and carvings
must accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of the
from Bosra, 5th century. This relief is executed in
a very proficient style. While examples from earlier
periods were conservative in that they did not dare to
project the figure far from the stone, this figure has a
wealth of hair emerging from the slab. The stone is
delicate, as the broken nose suggests. The style of
the figure seems less the product of the Classical world
and more the result of a local artistic tradition.
from the Museum of Al’Noman 3rd century. Mosaics were
typical of the Classical world and represented a considerable
investment of time and often artistic skill. Many of the
Christian structures of later centuries were built using inexpensive
materials and not surprisingly mosaics were rarely used in later
Byzantine empire thought of itself as a contination of the Roman,
though their language was Greek. Yet unlike the Roman state
religion, the Byzantines held Christianity to be a universal state
religion. There was no tolerance for other forms of worship. Yet
Syria was not Christianized from without. Palestine was an
integral part of Syria, and many of the most famous cities of early
Christianity were part of modern Syria. Historical records make clear
that Christianity did not find fertile ground in Jerusalem, and that due
to oppression the new religion was soon pushed out of the Holy Land.
Romans offered recognition to established religions, but did not
recognize innovations that threatened social instability. The new
religion was also seen by the Jewish establishment as a threat to their
faith. The result was that the new religion was most successful
when removed from its place of origin.
Syria Christianity found a ready audience. Many of the concepts were
familiar to the Semitic inhabitants, and Classical religions were on the
wane in the face of a faith that promised a happy afterlife in return
for forms of worship more focussed on the individual. Yet amid
this great change of religions, there was much that was preserved from
earlier ages. Classical texts were preserved in Syrian
monasteries, and new works that were to have a profound effect on Europe
were being written in Syria. The diffusion of Christianity is of great
importance to the Late Antique period.
is a village about 50 km from Damascus.
It is a popular destination for tourists. Inhabitants still speak
Aramaic, the language used by Jesus. The town preserves some
interesting remains attesting to the continuity of tradition.
Springs were venerated by pre-Christian peoples and continue to
hold the attention of desert dwellers. This is a photo of the
Greek Orthodox church of St. Thecla, who was reputed to have been
a pupil of St. Paul and is one of the first martyrs. The cave
behind holds a spring.
a short list of sites mention should also be made of Rasafe. Although it
is not well known and there are few provisions for tourists there, it is
well worth the effort. The site is of great significance and the
surrounding stark landscape is quite beautiful. These walls are the most
attractive aspect today. They form a huge rectangle 550 x 400
metres in extent. The stone is of an optically semi-opaque calcite
which in the morning and evening takes on the coloured hue of the light.
It is perhaps the best example of a romantic ruin in Syria because it
has had essentially no restoration besides the cisterns. The church was
built on the place reputed to be where Sergius was martyred by his
fellow Roman soldiers in 305. A shrine was soon erected here that
was substantially re-built by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I
(491-518). The name also changed to Sergiopolis at this time in
honour of the saint. The site was rebuilt by Justinian in stone
instead of mud brick. Invasions by the Sasanian Persians caused the site
to be heavily fortified. The city resisted the siege of Khosroes I
but fell to the massive campaign of Khosroes II. With the coming
of Islam - under the Umayyads - the city was again used as a frontier
fortification. After the fall of the Umayyad dynasty and the
general decline of Syria in importance, the site was abandoned.
cathedral of St. Sergius was built in the 6th century of
limestone. The structure is still quite impressive, in the
style of Romanesque structures of Western Europe during the early
are few areas in Syria that are still remote enough to have missed the
housing boom. The string of archaeological sites in the north of
Syria - known as the Dead Cities - are perhaps the best example of this
phenomenon. This region, in the hills that lie between the Aleppo-Hama
highway in the East and the Orontes river in the west, is home to an
estimated 600 ancient cities. They are currently deserted or sparsely
inhabited. In antiquity the region supplied the city of Antioch
with goods. This city was famous for its high culture in the
Classical world and under the Byzantines. The so called dead cities were
major producers of olives, which are still grown in small groves today.
Many structures have facilities for extracting oil, which was a major
food source and was used for light as well. Documentary evidence
suggests that it was traded all through the Mediterranean.
Although most structures date from the 5th and 6th centuries AD, several
pagan temples are also preserved.
of the few temples preserved in the Dead Cities is at Baqirha.
Christian structures were built utilizing materials from earlier
were built in Northern Syria till several hundred years after the coming
of Islam. What changed the fortunes of these cities was the shift of
emphasis from West to East. Damascus was turned into the most
important city in Syria, and as a result Antioch and the North declined
in importance. As the centre of gravity shifted towards Baghdad,
Northern Syria became even more isolated still, though this essentially
saved the many small cities of the region of destruction, as they were
simply abandoned. Though they are called ‘cities’ it is clear
from their extent and layout that most were simply villages. There
was little attempt to impose a street plan on them and many of the
structures are far from monumental. They mostly represent Roman or
Byzantine forms in a rustic style, and as this kind of functional
architecture is rare they present an almost unique glimpse into how most
people lived. Due to the building materials, most structures are made
using blocks and slabs, and undressed stone serves for many walls. At
the same time a fraction of buildings are of great beauty, and the
rugged natural setting of many of the structures is very appealing to
those who desire solitude.
plan many of the houses were built around a courtyard. This
outdoor work space was central in the life of the family, as it is
today. If a family could afford it there would also be provision for
shade. Most roofs were made to be spanned by timber, and in a few cases
tiles were used to cover the roof. There are perhaps more ancient
churches surviving here than in any other part of the world. Most
are designed to serve a small community. A number of buildings
were often attached to churches, from monasteries and convents through hospitals. Even a small church could have important relics that
would have encouraged pilgrims. They were widely abandoned with a change
in trade patterns during the 8th and 9th centuries, which explains their
excellent state of preservation today.
churches in Syria were built with the
separate from the church itself. There were apparently such
numbers of new converts to Christianity that this arrangement was
required, and records indicate that several hundred could be
baptised in one day
the most famous pilgrimage centre in the area is devoted to St. Simeon
Stylites. This Saint is famous throughout the world for isolating
himself on a pillar, and the site is particularly visited by Orthodox
Christians. The saint was born in 390, long after the period of
persecutions. When he was a young man he entered a monastery and
began inflicting pain upon himself using various means. When his
superior noted that he was killing himself, he changed focus, and went
on top of a pillar. He is recorded as standing for hours leading into
days in the worst weather conditions. He would also refuse food
and water for long periods of time, and his gaunt frame attracted
admiration from pilgrims. He quickly spawned imitation, and driven
by the need to outdo his previous feats, he raised his pillar so that
for the last 30 years of his life it was 64 feet tall. The town
thrived from all the pilgrims, and after the death of the Saint
considerable effort was placed to secure a lasting memorial in this
place. Because the saint was an advocate of conservatism in the church,
the Byzantine Emperor Zeno decided to encourage the veneration of the
saint in 480-490. The result was that the church and surrounding
complex were the most important outside the Constantinople. In
form the structures combines Eastern and Western features.
complex, Telanissos. At the foot of the hill leading up to the
church of St. Simeon is the village that would have supplied
pilgrims with daily needs. The SW complex is a hostel.
Church, Telanissos. Most of the structures in Telanissos are
religious in nature.
church and the baptistery are at two ends of a courtyard that is
lined with small structures that serve as hostels. The baptistery
is a tall, narrow structure with few ornaments.
South facade of the Church is richly adorned with decoration and
is more horizontal than vertical in plan.
place where St. Simeon’s pillar stood is marked by a stone.
Nothing remains of the pillar now. While it is probable that the
area was originally enclosed, a number of earthquakes damaged the
structure and there were many phases of re-building in antiquity.
on a stone canopy from the church of St. Simeon. Floral forms,
particularly derived from palm fronds, are a popular motif in the
Near East. Crosses can be ‘hidden’ in ornament.
continues to thrive in Syria. Contrary to what many assume,
Syrians are noted for their tolerance of religious minorities and
particularly hospitable to foreign guests.
St. George Monastery (Deir Mar Georgis) was founded in the 6th
century while the earliest visible remains date to the 13th
century. There are many important icons dating to the 17th
century to the present. The new chapel was built in 1857 and is
richly ornamented with carved wood.
of wood carving from Deir Mar Georgis.
Many of the designs
are based on floral forms with fantastic creatures.