Scattered on the barren limestone uplands of northwestern Syria between Aleppo and Hama lies a startling collection of hundreds of abandoned Roman and Byzantine farms, monestaries and towns. These are now known as the Dead Cities. They are surrounded by a starkly bare and rocky landscape that extends over many thousands of hectares.
During the Byzantine period these were thriving communities and present much evidence that they were supported by olive and wine cultivation and export to the rest of the empire. Some of the villas display huge stone tubs and conduits for grape crushing and transference of the resulting juice. The grapes and olives were grown on carefully maintained terraced plots surrounding the settlements. In the period of the 7th century AD Persian invasions followed by Arab invasions disrupted the Byzantine settlements and their trade linkages to the rest of the empire. The Dead Cities then began their decline as the citizens died-out or left for other regions. With the loss of careful cultivation and care for the terraced fields the Mediterranean climate with its arid summer and hard winter rains caused the fragile topsoil to be eroded from the hilly fields. The resulting barren and desertified landscape restricted further agricultural use and the de-populated nature of the region led to the preservation of the Dead Cities to the present day.
The ruins of the Dead Cities provide a clear and compelling symbol of how the combination of conflict, the break-down of commerce and communication, and the environmental challenges of land management in the world’s arid regions can produce agricultural and societal collapse on a stunning scale. Lets hope this view of the past is not also a window into the future.