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.
I wandered through the grand old villas, exploring the town baths and church, admiring the bold Hellenistic architecture with its rich red stone. The late sun raked across pitted walls, revealing ornamental crosses and ancient inscriptions. This is an eerie and magical place, especially late on in the day when there were no other foreign visitors, just a couple of local families enjoying picnics and football matches – eighth-century columns doubling up as goalposts.
Several of the Dead Cities have been dug by archaeologists and are laid out for visitors with useful signs and information; others lie within modern villages: strange stone towers sprouting from gardens, fragments of carved lintels lying under the pistachio trees. At one place, Qatura, we stepped through a sheep pen to reach a tomb entrance carved into the rock beneath a family house. Inside the entrance vestibule there were traces of Greek inscriptions; beyond, just a darkened sepulchre with stone benches where sacks of fertilizer were stored.
We walked back down the hill and set off for the region’s most famous historical site, the shrine of St Simeon Stylites. The vast ruined church, the most ambitious structure on earth in the late fifth century, contains the stump of the pillar where St Simon spent the last 36 years of his life until his death in 459AD. He was said to eat once a week, frugally of course.
“The locals say he never spoke to a woman in his life, not even his mother,” Adnan explained.” Simon’s attempt to withdraw from the world up an 18m-tall pillar had one major effect. People flocked to see him. The church was abandoned in the 12th century and is now an atmospheric ruin where the wind moans in the pine trees and courting couples explore the further-flung ruins of the settlement.