Back to Know Your World

One of a group of several hundred of Syria’s so-called Dead Cities, Serjilla is not a member of a club of towns ravaged by the Islamic State. At least, that’s not how the Dead Cities came to be. Clustered in what is now northwestern Syria, the Dead Cities are relics from an extinct geopolitical age. Built during Late Antiquity to the early Byzantine era, the communities served as way- and processing-stations on the trade routes between the Mediterranean, Europe and Anatolia on one side, and the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and the Far East on the other.

Early scholarship thought they were abandoned after the Islamic conquest pushed the primarily Christian residents out, but reality was more complicated. Rising urbanism in places like Aleppo likely drew the lion’s share of residents, and shifting geopolitical realities under consolidating Ottoman authority — which wanted control of the trade for itself — were likely the final nail in the coffin. As the world shifted from land-based transport to deep-water navigation during the 16th to 20th centuries, even those successor cities faded.

Relics of a trade system that had become obsolete many centuries ago, Syria’s Dead Cities found a second “life” in providing shelter and hide-outs for IS and the constellation of various rebel groups and Islamist militants that have proliferated since the start of the Syrian Civil War.

For more on the future of Syria and the region, see Chapter 7 of The Absent Superpower.