Couple 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 consort.

Relief 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 material.

Relief 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.

Mosaic 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 centuries.

The 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.

In 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.

Maalula 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.

In 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.

The 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 Middle Ages.

There 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.

One of the few temples preserved in the Dead Cities is at Baqirha.  Christian structures were built utilizing materials from earlier structures.

Churches 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.

In 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.

Early churches in Syria were built with the baptistery 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

Perhaps 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.

SW 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.

SW Church, Telanissos. Most of the structures in Telanissos are religious in nature.

The 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.

The South facade of the Church is richly adorned with decoration and is more horizontal than vertical in plan.

The 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.

Carving 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.

Christianity 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.

The 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.

Detail of wood carving from Deir Mar Georgis.  Many of the designs are based on floral forms with fantastic creatures.


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