In 1269, the last residents left Resafa forever and were then forgotten for 400 years. In 1691, English merchants rediscovered the settlement. Another 200 years would pass before German researchers would begin the first excavations in 1907. Resafa is a city of ruins in northern Syria; it was a Roman fortified military camp of the eastern limes, 25 km south of the Euphrates. With five preserved Christian churches, the “Great Mosque”, underground cisterns, a monumental city wall, and the Caliph’s residence, it is one of Syria’s most important sites of ruins – and a singular testimony of the transition from Late Antiquity to early Islam. The grave of a Christian Roman officer named Sergios became the destination for pilgrims – and so in the 5th and 6th centuries, Resafa, which was also called Sergiopolis, became one of the most important Christian pilgrimage sites of the eastern Mediterranean realm. After the Arabs conquered the region around 636, Caliph Hisham ibn Abd-el-Malik had a mosque built in immediate proximity to the basilica in which Sergios’ bones were preserved.
The two houses of worship were used in parallel – until Resafa was abandoned in 1269 as a result of the Mongol invasion. Historical architectural research showed how the individual layers of time and changes can be grasped. “And under the church is a cistern in the earth in the same style as the church building, vaulted over marble pillars and with marble slabs. The cistern is filled with rainwater,” reports an old source.
A Question of Irrigation
An elaborate system supplied Resafa with water: a dam stored the runoff of winter rain from a wadi located beside the city; the water was stored in large underground cisterns for the summer. Geo-scientists used a computer model to find out how much rain had to fall to ensure that this system could function. The results make clear what vegetation there was and what the general climatic and hydrological conditions were.
One question in particular did interest the researchers: only five kilometers away from Resafa, the groundwater itself was potable. So why did the settlement develop here? It was difficult to keep the water in the cisterns fresh. And as we know from old sources, only the rich could send their servants to the Euphrates, 25 kilometers away, if the supply ran out. Were there military reasons for founding the city in this spot? In a three-dimensional depiction, the settlement area was reproduced in all its phases, through its most flourishing period to its decline. The researchers ultimately drew up an archaeological map of Resafa. Viewed together with the precipitation model, we were able to say what the environmental conditions probably were during Resafa’s zenith, what the city looked like in Late Antiquity, and how the Caliph’s settling here changed the appearance of the city and its environs, i.e., how the Christian city became an Islamic one.
Further information can be found on the web site of the Institut für Bauforschung (Technische Universität Berlin).
- At the Transition from Late Antiquity to Islam - Resafa in Syria – Cult Site and Center of Power in Relation to Landscape