The plains of northern Syria are dotted with the remains of ruined cities dating from the Roman and Byzantine eras. Some of these are religious sites, such as Qalaat Simoon, where the famous Simon Stylites spent all his adult life perched on top of a 60 foot pillar in order to draw closer to God. Others are purely secular in nature, trading posts, farming settlements, fortresses against the ever-present threat of Persian invasion.
Some of these so-called “ghost cities” are little more than tumbled heaps of stonework, overgrown by weeds and thorn bushes. Others, however, are remarkably well preserved, with pillared halls and high stone walls that only lack roofs in order to be fit for habitation once again.
Unfortunately the population of Syria is increasing dramatically and all these new bodies require somewhere to live. Unwilling to build on good farming land which is needed to support the growing number of people, the villagers and peasants are encroaching on the “ghost cities”, building new concrete houses among the golden stones of their Byzantine predecessors.
This is provoking a severe response from the Syrian government, which is coming under pressure from both the Archaeology Authority and the Ministry of Tourism. Next to oil, tourism is Syria’s greatest earner of foreign exchange and anything which imperils the flow of tourist dollars provokes a strong reaction. New laws have been passed and enforced with draconian severity. Police and army have been involved in demolitions, leaving many of the poor farmers homeless.
Diggings, of course, deplores desecration of ancient sites and is wholeheartedly in favour of the demolition of modern concrete atrocities – and sees no reason why Syria should be the only pioneer in this respect. There are many buildings in Sydney that could, with advantage to the environment, be removed as a blot on the landscape.
On the other hand, Diggings is not ignorant of the pressures facing the poor in the Middle East. We have every sympathy with the “little people” who struggle daily for a living, often oppressed by the very government officials who should be protecting and assisting them.
It seems to us that a solution would be for the ruins to be recreated. After all, given the choice between living in a modern concrete hovel and an elegant Roman villa, we have no doubts as to which we would choose! Such a solution would be expensive, but it would preserve the ruins – and after all, what is the advantage to the tourist to see a ruin rather than a living city? – and at the same time provide dwellings for the peasants.
The life-style of the modern Syrian farmer is not so greatly different from that of the ancient Romans and Byzantines. Farm machinery is still largely powered by animals and house work is done by hand without the benefit of washing machines and vacuum cleaners. About the only sign of the 20th century in many places is the ever-present television aerial sticking up above the roof-tops. With a little thought and imagination, these former “ghost cities” could become living cities once again and doubly attractive to the tourists as ancient life is recreated together with the ancient cities.
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