Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Drangiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Rasaffa, Syria – a Border town on the Euphrates

“All the land west of the Euphrates and his daughter in marriage” is what King Darius III promised to Alexander the Great in exchange for his family which had fallen into the hands of the Macedonian King after the Battle of Issus. I can’t help remembering these words when I stare at the fast-flowing waters of the River Euphrates on my journey along the many remains of mainly Roman forts on the Arabian Limes in Syria.

The first such fortification I meet after leaving Aleppo southwards is (Al-)Rasaffa in the middle of a flat monotonous desert landscape. The first settlers here were the Assyrians in the 9th century BC, who set up a military camp. During Roman occupation, it became a desert outpost whose role was mainly to keep out the Sassanids from Persia. Rasaffa flourished as it was an important link on the caravan routes linking Aleppo to Dura Europos and Palmyra. After the Romans, it turned into a destination for pilgrims in honor of Saint Sergius, a Roman officer who had converted to Christianity and had been martyred in 305 because of his beliefs. This happened during the reign of Diocletian who persecuted everybody who refused to sacrifice to Jupiter.

According to early Christian documents, Sergius and Bacchus were Roman officers and favorites of Emperor Maximian (who co-ruled for a while with Diocletian) till they openly admitted that they were Christians. The punishment for such an insult was horrible. Sergius and Bacchus were ordered to dress up as women and march through the streets. They were chastised so severally that Bacchus died. Sergius’ agony wasn’t over yet and it is reported that boards were nailed to his feet to force him to walk to his beheading.

By the fifth century, these martyrs were so famous that the church above Sergius’ grave was restored and Emperor JustinianI changed the name of Rasaffa into Sergiopolis, which is still used alternatively. In 616, Rasaffa succumbed to the Persian Sassanids and later on to the Umayyads. One of their Caliphs, Hisham, was very much interested in architecture and he took care to rebuild the city and elected it as his summer residence. Like its neighbors, Rasaffa was ultimately destroyed by the Persian Abbasids, and the Mongols completed the job in 1247. The only people we see here today are the local Bedouins tending their sheep.

The layout of Rasaffa is typical Roman, mainly thanks to the Byzantine Emperor Anastase: a large walled square of 300 x 500 meters sitting on the hard steppe soil at the edge of the desert. What makes Rasaffa so special is the use of local pink gypsum crystal rocks which looks very much like quartz. The effect is sublime as its particles reflect the sunlight into millions of sparkles.

The entrance gates are located in the middle of each wall, the northern gate being the principal one with three arches guarded on each side by a square bastion. This is where the Cardo Maximus starts with its houses, shops, storage areas and even the so-called “Tetraconch” church, which is a cruciform church that was very popular in Byzantine times inspired on the Byzantine cross. The origin of this kind of church is to be found here in Syria, it seems. This church is also being referred to as the Martyrium, a marvelous construction with capitals and arches that look like lacework. Further, down the Cardo, I come across three enormous underground water cisterns with its adjacent water distribution system – extremely ingenious! The largest cistern measures 58 x 22 meters and the water level could rise to a height of 13 meters. The inner walls are still covered with their waterproof coat of cement. Based on these reservoirs, scholars were able to calculate the size of Rasaffa’s population. As the city had no spring and no access to running water, it was totally depending on these large cisterns to collect the rain that fell mainly in winter and in spring.

From here, I make a left turn towards the Great Basilica dedicated to Saint Sergius dating from 559, where the bodies of Sergius and Bacchus were interred. This church is also shining in its exquisite quartz-like stones. The triple-aisled Christian church is intermingled with the large square hall that was used in the 13th and 14th century as a mosque. Two alcoves of the church were promoted to mihrab. It is quite interesting to see how the Christians and Muslims lived side by side during the Middle-Ages as an inscription tells us. Curiously enough I miss these mihrabs altogether, fascinated as I am by the oval-shaped bêma in the very middle of the Basilica, hardly a few steps higher than the surrounded floor – a rather unique feature. This church became a major pilgrimage site in the East. The Byzantine army considered Sergius and Bacchus as their protectors and many more sanctuaries were dedicated to them. Today, these saints are still the patrons of the Christian nomads.

Close to this Basilica and the breach in the southeastern corner of the city walls, I find the remains of the palace which Caliph Hisham built for himself, a square building in which all the rooms opened to the central courtyard. Unfortunately, consecutive destructions have destroyed most of the palace.
Otherwise, not much remains today to testify to Rasaffa’s grandeur. The city looks pretty desolate with deep pits all around you: craters that testify of unfortunate vandalism. Treasure hunters always managed to find a way to possible hidden fortunes.

To make the story about Saint Sergius complete, I also visited the Monastery of Mar Sarkis  (i.e. Saint Sergius) on the way from Damascus to Homs, just before Maalula, where the Aramaic language is still very much alive. In the fourth century, this monastery was built as so often, on top of an earlier pagan temple perched high on top of a nearby gorge. The access door roughly hewn in the crude rock is a low one, meant to impose humility on the visitor and is said to be “very old” – just how old remains vague for everything inside looks timeless. The church is divided into three aisles and is definitely Byzantine. Its walls are reinforced by wooden beams that are incorporated horizontally in between the layers of stone in order to make the construction earthquake-proof. So smart! Thanks to these wooden beams and carbon-dating technology, is has been established that the church is 2,000 years old. Originally these walls were enhanced with frescos and a few exposed parts reveal scenes with wonderfully fresh colors.

A striking element is a central altar in the shape of a horseshoe dedicated to Saint Sergius, entirely made of marble with a 7 cm high border which is known to be typical an early Christian example. In fact, it has all the elements of a pagan altar except that there is no gutter to evacuate the blood of the sacrificed animals. I find this terribly exciting – never heard about it and certainly never seen any! The northern altar is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a simple square shape with an edge of 4 cm high but again without the pagan gutter. Otherwise, there are several original Byzantine icons representing the Mother of God; a double icon of the Crucifixion of Christ and the Last Supper; and one of a sitting John the Baptist who is smiling – quite unusual. Well, so much for Saint Sergius or Mar Sarkis anyway.

[Click here for more pictures of the cities along the Euphrates]

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