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The ‘Forgotten Cities’ of Idlib at risk in Syria’s war

20190425181743_01Kharrab Shams

One of the earliest churches in the Dead Cities, Kharrab Shams, dated to 372. [photo copyright Diana Darke, Feb 2005.]

The haunting beauty of Syria’s so-called ‘Dead Cities’, once seen, is never forgotten. Here on the wild and magical hills of northwest Syria nestles the world’s richest repository of 4th, 5th and 6th century churches – over 2,000, spread among hundreds of early Byzantine settlements. Together, they represent the transition from Roman paganism to the zeal of early Christianity, providing unique evidence in stone of the influence of Syrian styles on the subsequent evolution of European Romanesque and Gothic religious architecture. 

But today, like the three million souls currently kettled in Idlib province, they are utterly forgotten. Bygone inhabitants grew prosperous from production of olive oil and wine, as their stone presses testify. Today’s cash crop is cigarette tobacco, lifeblood of the war.


The olive presses in a 5th century villa at Serjilla. [copyright Diana Darke, July 2020]

Ironically, Syria’s Tourism Ministry rebranded the ruins ‘The Forgotten Cities’ before the war, imagining high-end walking tours for romantically-minded visitors amid the bucolic landscapes.

So forgotten were they, that UNESCO only recognised as them as a World Heritage Site in June 2011, calling them ‘Ancient Villages of Northern Syria’. Confusion over what to call them remains, but beyond doubt is their astonishing state of preservation. The ancestor of France’s beloved Notre-Dame Cathedral still stands on a remote hilltop in rebel-held Idlib, its familiar twin-towered facade flanking a monumental entrance.


The facade at Qalb Lozeh, with three-storey towers flanking a monumental entrance, c. 450 [copyright Diana Darke, July 2010]

Crafted from local limestone c.450, it has survived wars, earthquakes and centuries of use as a playground for village children, never requiring buttressing in over 1500 years. Known as Qalb Lozeh, Arabic ‘Heart of the Almond’ (cf crème de la crème), its flamboyant doorway was designed to welcome eager pilgrims en route to hear the eccentric St Simeon preach from his pillar, a day’s walk northeast.

Much closer, in the valley below, today’s Qalb Lozeh villagers would have heard the explosions from Barisha on 27 October 2019, when ISIS chief Al-Baghdadi was ‘taken out’ by US special forces. Idlib’s rugged karst geography makes it natural guerrilla territory, with perfect caves for rebel hideouts.

Hermits too have long sought refuge in these caves. St Simeon Stylites, son a local farmer, was the most celebrated hermit of his day, moving from a cave to a pillar (Greek ‘stylos’) to escape the crowds who pursued him. When he died in 459 after living 36 years on top of his pillar, the Byzantine Emperor ordered the construction of four basilicas and a walk-in baptistery to mark the spot. The resulting St Simeon’s Basilica complex, completed in 490, was the Santiago de Compostela of its day, the first centred church beneath a dome, not surpassed in all of Christendom till Hagia Sophia in 537. Its curved apse (chevet) and the finely sculpted ornamentation on its lintels, arches, mouldings and facades herald the many subsequent architectural refinements of Constantinople and Europe.


The chevet at St Simeon’s Basilica, completed by 490. [copyright Diana Darke]

The magnificent complex was badly damaged in May 2016 by Russian airstrikes blowing what remained of St Simeon’s pillar to pieces.


What remained of the pillar of St Simeon Stylites, at the centre of the four basilicas in July 2010. [copyright, Diana Darke]

Today the raised hilltop is the site of a Turkish observation post.

Turkish powers of observation are evidently not the sharpest, for on 17 December 2019 the disappearance was reported from Ain Dara, an unusual neo-Hittite temple overlooking the lush Afrin valley just north of St Simeon’s, of a giant basalt lion, guardian of the site for 3000 years. Now feared smuggled across the Turkish border, it represented Mesopotamian fertility goddess Ishtar, popularised through Agatha Christie’s Curse of Ishtar set in Iraq where Christie, who worked on excavations in northern Syria with archaeologist husband Max Mallowan, helped save ancient treasures under threat. In January 2018 the temple was 60% destroyed by Turkish air force shelling.


The claws of mythical beasts carved in the basalt stone of the 3000 year-old Ishtar Temple at Ain Dara [Copyright Diana Darke, July 2010]


The giant footprints of Ishtar entering the Ain Dara temple, a unique feature in the region. [copyright Max Darke, July 2010]

The routine Russian/Syrian bombing of Idlib’s schools and hospitals barely makes the headlines these days. Neither does the displacement of thousands of its poverty-stricken civilians into cold and muddy olive groves. Idlib’s inhabitants and culture are both ‘Forgotten’ and ‘Dead’, abandoned to their fate.

But we give up on the region at our peril.

Unmoved by massive loss of life and heritage, hard core Islamist extremists are digging in for the long haul. Most are not local, but with northwest Syria now home to the world’s largest concentration of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, the next iteration of ISIS may even now be incubating, soon to emerge from the caves of Idlib, to wreak more damage on Syria’s battered people and culture.

20190426120125_01 Church of Bissos Ruweiha

The Church of Bissos, Ruweiha, 6th century [copyright Diana Darke, February 2005]

A version of this article appeared on the BBC website on 8 February 2020:




Bonanza for Syria’s Treasure Thieves

The colonnaded street at Roman Apamea, Syria's largest archaeological site, visited by Mark Antony and Cleopatra  [DD]

The colonnaded street at Roman Apamea, Syria’s largest archaeological site, visited by Mark Antony and Cleopatra, now the victim of numerous illicit digs [DD]

This month was to have seen the start of a major three month exhibition called simply ‘Syria’ running from Sept-Dec 2013 at the Royal Academy in London’s Piccadilly, showcasing its art treasures to the world. Preparations were well under way when the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.

Instead, over the last three months criminal looting, illicit digs and theft of Syria’s art treasures have reached colossal proportions. Armed gangs, taking advantage of the absence of security at archaeological sites, have carried out systematic violent excavations, sometimes using bulldozers, to steal priceless antiquities.

Sites damaged by the fighting can often be repaired. Stolen items are lost forever. This criminality is a by-product of the fighting, and it is escalating.

The areas particularly affected are near the borders where the antiquities can be quickly and easily transported out of the country.  In the east near the Iraqi border ancient sites like Mari and Doura Europos have been targeted, in the west sites like Apamea and the Forgotten/Dead Cities, and in the south near Dara’a hundreds of hired men and armed gangs have been digging illegally inside the Al-Omari Mosque and in the Wadi Yarmouk and Tell Al-Ash’ari archaeological sites. Palmyra has also suffered illegal looting.

In an attempt to counter this alarming escalation, Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums has been trying to keep track so it can alert Interpol to intercept the antiquities being smuggled and has launched a new website in English and Arabic http://www.dgam.gov.sy which is updated daily cataloging the damage. Their experts have been trying, against the odds, to stem the outward tide of treasures and have been turning up at work every morning to do their best in the face of this criminality.

War damage to Syria’s cultural heritage has already been considerable. But damage from pure criminal theft is ten times worse and needs to be stopped. The full-scale looting of an entire country’s heritage is at stake and only the restoration of law and order can put a stop to it.

Some will say it is wrong to talk of physical damage to buildings at a time when such catastrophic loss of life is taking place. Of course the loss of human life matters more than anything, but this matters too, because when the war is finally over, Syria will need its rich cultural heritage to bring much needed employment to help rebuild the country. Its loss damages every Syrian.

The famous 5th century St Simeon Stylites' Basilica in the heart of a lawless area south of Aleppo [DD]

The 5th century St Simeon Stylites’ Basilica, one of the ‘Forgotten/Dead Cities’ in the heart of a contested area south of Aleppo [DD]

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