yarmouk camp

yarmouk camp
Yarmouk Refugee Camp

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What Is "The Plain Of Dead Cities"?

This is the first in what will hopefully be a long running and mindbogglingly interesting commentary on the current conflict in Syria. This blog takes its title from my recent book of the same name (see above).

Upon hearing the title of my book I notice that many people wear a puzzled expression.

"But surely this is an imaginary place, a metaphor for something else? Could this just be another case of McLaren being off down the bottom of the garden playing with the fairies? Could this be a macabre title stolen from Poe?"

Such questions do not strike me as unreasonable. After all, I am a skeptic myself. But the truth of the matter is that there really is a place of that name. How the term evolved and when it entered the common lexicon is a mystery. What is known is that in the far north of Syria, off to the west Aleppo, there is a large region of plains amid limestone hills, dotted with the ruins of 700 abandoned settlements.

Map of Syria showing location of the Plain of Dead Cities.
To call these settlements "cities" is a bit of a stretch. For the large part we are talking about farmstead, small hamlet settlements, mills, monasteries, churches and so on. Still, the phenomenon of 700 abandoned settlements is nothing to be shrugged off and ignored.

Especially once we know how old they are. A hint has already been given when I mentioned monasteries and churches. That's right, these settlements date back to approximately the 7th century A.D., before the arrival of Islam, and when the Byzantine Empire was still in the ascendancy, even as far off as Syria.

In fact, Syria had been steadily and continuously Hellenized since the time of Alexander the Great, throughout the subsequent three centuries of Seleucid rule, and beyond that another four centuries of Roman rule. So with the rise of the Byzantines the transition from Roman to Christian Syria was relatively smooth.

The limestone region in which the "Dead Cities" lie is most conducive to olive production. Such is the way throughout much of the eastern Mediterranean, where poor soil in hilly areas limits any agriculture to pastoral activities and the growing of olives - which do well in such an environment.

The development of the olive industry and the expansion of olive trade under the Byzantines, resulted in this region becoming prosperous and increasingly urbanized. Stone was the most readily available building material, which accounts for the remarkable state of preservation of many of these structures.

The Dead City of Serilla.

Well-preserved remains due to high-quality stone construction.

Ruinscape showing olive growth.

Roman Road running through the region of the Dead Cities.

Then everything came to a crashing halt. It was not so much a case of the Christians running for the hills to escape the arrival of Islam, for early on in Islamic history Christians were given special consideration as being "dhimmi", or, "people of the book". Along with the Jews, the dhimmi had to pay a special tax known as "jizya" but other than that they were left unmolested.

In fact, only 50 years after the death of Muhammad, when the Umayyad dynasty made Damascus their capital, many Christians were considered vital to the running of the newly founded Islamic Empire. Most of the conquering Arabs did not have the experience required to run the bureaucracy of an empire, so the Christians were badly needed for that role.

The real reason for the Christian population of northern Syria abandoning this region was that the arrival of Islam completely disrupted the olive industry and olive trade infrastructure. Once that happened the money dried up and the inhabitants of the "Plain of Dead Cities" went elsewhere. And to be fair, there was an increase in pressure on non-Muslims to convert, especially once Islam became firmly entrenched.

So for over 1000 years the "Plain of Dead Cities" has remained just that, in quiet seclusion as the madness of the centuries has passed by. At least, until recently. On December 7th 2013 "The Economist" stated that families fleeing the war live among the “Dead Cities”, a cluster of early Christian settlements in the rebel-held north.

Surely this is one of the great ironies of the war in Syria. As the modern cities of Syria are flattened, the fleeing refugees are bringing the long-abandoned cities back to life.

Consider Homs, the third city of Syria, with a population of over 1 million. Approximately 60% of Homs has been devastated and everyone has fled. Homs is now a battleground, nothing more, nothing less. The only people that remain are trying to kill each other. Can a city like Homs ever recover from such devastation? Or are we witnessing a city in it's death throes, or, perhaps Homs is already dead?

Here endeth the lesson...

Post-apocalyptic Scene in Homs.

Unimaginable Devastation in Homs. Can Homs Recover?


  1. Given Hezbollah's loose alliance with the Assad regime, and IS's foray across the border, what do you think are the chances of Lebanon getting dragged further into the Syrian conflict?

  2. The chances of that happening are very high. Hezbollah have been providing assistance to the Assadist Regime for well over a year now and have been fighting quite far afield of the border of Lebanon, such as up in the Qalamoun Mountains around Maalula. Given that Shiite Hazaras have been travelling all the way from Afghanistan to join the fight then Hezbollah should easily be able to traverse the length and breadth of Syria. But what matters most in relation to your point is the effect of all of this in Lebanon, the most mixed and ethnically fractured country in the Middle East, with significant Shia, Sunni and Christian populations. Fighting could erupt between these groups at any time.