Thursday, November 02, 2006

Peasant villages of Roman Syria

Why is this not better known?

As someone who has worked on the history of Late Antiquity, I was aware that there was extensive archaeology associated with prosperous olive-oil production in Roman Syria. Until I read Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages, I had no idea of the nature of that evidence.

Have a look above, and at what Wickham says on p. 443, speaking of Syria and Palestine:

What makes this region special are the astonishing standing ruins of villages that still survive in, especially, the Limestone Massif of north-east Syria...arguably the most significant monuments to the late Roman world surviving anywhere, for they are monuments to the peasant majority, not to rich but atypical elites...

There are some 700 deserted late Roman villages on the Limestone Massif... of which at least fifty are well enough preserved to be capable of study without excavation. They consist of groups of houses, built without much sign of planning, with only rudimentary streets and public spaces. Villages vary between eight and 200 houses...The houses are made out of well-cut squared limestone, and are generally two storeyed...These houses were built with considerable care, 'comme des temples romains,' as Georges Tate has written, and are often elaborately decorated with mouldings, relief sculpture, and colonnading... there are houses surviving to the roof pediment, 10 metres above the ground, and others with their doors (always made of basalt, imported from the plains some 40 km to the east) still in place.

There is a Wikipedia article on the ruins of Serjilla (source of the picture above) which calls Serjila one of the "Dead Cities" of the area. Other web sources use the Dead City term, too. But the evidence all indicates that this is something more interesting. It, like all the rest is a Dead Peasant Village. A peasant village of really comfortable peasants, making a pile selling oil to the international market, but socially peasants all the same.

Why hasn't someone done a gorgeous coffee-table book about this? There might even be money in it.


Anonymous Bill Garrett said...

William Dalrymple, 1997, ("From The Holy Mountain," Harper Perennial, London UK. pp 177-182) observed during his visit in 1994: "... more intact Byzantine buildings lay clustered at my feet in this obscure valley than survive in all three of the greatest Byzantine metropolises - Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria- put together."

"The perfection of preservation is extraordinary. Outside some of the houses you can still see olive presses.... The town meeting house...still exudes an air of pompous provincial pride, as if the Byzantine gentlemen farmers were only out in the fields,... and would be back in the evening.

He goes on to say that the view (in 1994) was almost exactly as it would have been when John Moschos passed through these hills at the end of the sixth century.

12:35 AM  

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