Scattered throughout much of the northern part of the country, nearly 800 abandoned towns, villages, and monastic compounds have stood in near-perfect condition for as long as thirteen centuries, providing a valuable glimpse of rural life in the area during periods of Roman and Byzantine influence.
These “Dead Cities” lie throughout the Limestone Massif region in the hills south and west of Aleppo. This limestone hill country stands above the surrounding regions at an average elevation of 400-500 meters with occasional peaks reaching as high as 800m; windswept and not overly fertile, much of the land is exposed and only sparsely vegetated. First cropping up around 250 CE, these settlements in a land of few trees were mostly made of stone and served as the extended outskirts of the major Byzantine city of Antioch. By the 8th-10th centuries CE, though, they were completely abandoned, beautifully preserved shells of cities. For hundreds of years afterward – even through the 21st century – explorers could stroll through the silent streets of these villages, popping into an assortment of houses, public buildings, markets, inns, or one of over 2000 ancient churches found in the Dead Cities.
The lack of gradual decay and neglect causes historians to puzzle over why these villages were abandoned so rapidly. A number of possible explanations have been discussed, but only one has gained much traction: during the years that these towns thrived, they existed primarily on their connections with Antioch. When conflict between the Arab world and Byzantium cut off these connections, the cities in Antioch’s hinterland found themselves unable to sustain themselves otherwise: because the ground they inhabited was so infertile, they were incapable of growing crops to support themselves and were soon forced to migrate to more arable lands.
In 2011, a group of these abandoned cities were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for the uniquely vivid picture they offer of ancient life in the region.