Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Dead Cities of the Syrian Hill Country Volume 49 Number 5, September/October 1996
by Clive Foss

The ruins of some 700 settlements have inspired romantic theories of sumptuous cities mysteriously abandoned.

[image] The village of Qirqbize, abandoned for the last 1,000 years, overlooks a once densely populated Syrian landscape. (Photo Clive Foss) [LARGER IMAGE]

Dotting the barren limestone hills of north-central Syria, between Antioch and Aleppo, are the well-preserved remains of some 700 villages that flourished under the Christian Roman empire of the fourth century and later. Set two to three miles apart, with their elegant churches and clusters of gray stone buildings, many of them look as if they had been abandoned yesterday. They were first studied in 1863 by the French nobleman and diplomat Charles-Jean-Melchoir, Count de Vogüé, and later, in 1899-1900, by the Princeton professor Howard Crosby Butler. Beginning in 1933 they were investigated by the Russian architect George Tchalenko, who concluded that they had subsisted on the olive-oil trade. But only in the 1970s did intensive excavations of the village of Dehes, by Georges Tate and Jean-Pierre Sodini of the French Institute of Archaeology in Damascus, yield a reliable history of these ruins. Tate and Sodini found evidence indicating that stock raising and cereal crops were an important part of the economy, shattering the notion that these villages had depended exclusively on olive oil. Expansion was almost continuous from the late third century, reaching a peak of activity in the late fifth, then slowing until about 550. By that time the region supported as many as 300,000 people living in some 700 villages. Stagnation then set in, coinciding with a series of known disasters: Sassanian invasions, epidemics of bubonic plague, drought, and famine. From the mid-seventh century onward living conditions deteriorated. Nonetheless the region remained occupied through the eighth century, after which it was gradually abandoned.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America