I’ve been in Syria only a couple of days, but the staggering complexity of history and culture are already clear. The previous afternoon it took me about three hours to walk a couple of hundred yards through old Damascus. Roman columns were tucked into medieval walls, the street itself following a route laid down by Alexander the Great… The Dead Cities. These are 780 abandoned settlements dating back to between the fifth and eighth centuries, scattered across a vast swathe of northern Syria.
At Serjilla, an hour’s drive south of Aleppo, I found one of the best-preserved sites dotted across a rolling upland area of treeless jagged limestone – at first glance, an impossibly inhospitable landscape. In fact, it was here that olive oil and wine manufacture made the inhabitants rich in the early years of Byzantium. The huge stone presses for oil and wine lie at the side of magnificent porticoed villas as though their owners had only recently stepped away.