October 7, 2019

Basilica of Saint Sergius the Martyr at Resafa in Syria

The Roman soldier and martyr Saint Sergius was martyred and buried in Resafa, Syria in the fourth century. It is in the desert about thirty kilometers west of Raqqa and thirty-five kilometers south of the river Euphrates. Over his grave, which became a place of pilgrimage and miracles, a martyrion was erected, and Resafa became known as Sergiopolis. The Roman Emperor Anastasios (r. 491-518) expanded the martyr’s shrine into a basilica (known as Basilica B to distinguish it from a later built Basilica A nearby). After Jerusalem, it was the most important Christian pilgrimage center in the Middle East. It had a special appeal to the local Arabs, especially the Ghassanids. By the late 6th century, the Ghassanids’ tribal Arab ally the Bahra’ were tasked with guarding Resafa and it’s shrine from nomadic marauders and the Lakhmids of Mesopotamia.

A bit later, the emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) built new fortifications for the city. The military reason must have been the defense of the Strata Diocletiana, but Justinian’s contemporary Procopius mentions another motive: protection of ecclesiastical properties. He writes (Buildings 2.9.3-9):

There is a certain church in Euphratesia, dedicated to Sergius, a famous saint, whom men of former times used to venerate and revere, so that they named the place Sergiopolis, and they had surrounded it with a very humble wall, just sufficient to prevent the Saracens of the region from capturing it by storm. For the Saracens are naturally incapable of storming a wall, and the weakest kind of barricade, put together with perhaps nothing but mud, is sufficient to check their assault.

At a later time, however, this church, through its acquisition of treasures, came to be powerful and celebrated. And the Emperor Justinian, upon considering this situation, at once gave it careful attention, and he surrounded the church with a most remarkable wall, and he stored up a great quantity of water and thus provided the inhabitants with a bountiful supply. Furthermore, he added to the place houses and stoas and the other buildings which are wont to be the adornments of a city.

Besides this he established there a garrison of soldiers who, in case of need, defended the circuit-wall. Khusrau, indeed, the King of the Persians, made a great effort to capture the city, sending a great army to besiege it; but because of the strength of the defenses he accomplished nothing and abandoned the investment.

This description is fairly accurate. The “remarkable wall”, which has twenty-one towers and four gates, is fifteen meters high and three meters wide and surrounds an irregular rectangular area. The northern wall is 536 meters long, the western wall 411 meters, the southern 549 meters, and the eastern wall 350 meters.

The stoas mentioned by Procopius must have been along the main roads. One of these ran from the eastern to the western gate. The other one was 4.6 meters wide, with two two meter wide sidewalks, and led from the cistern in the southwest (for “a great quantity of water”) past the khan to the splendidly decorated northern gate. This northern gate was quite tall and offered shadow to a small square, where merchants must have exchanged their products.

The city was lost by the Romans in the 7th century when the Arabs won the final victory at the Battle of Yarmouk in the year 636. In the eighth century, the Umayyad caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (r. 724–743) made the city his favored residence, and built several palaces around it. The city was finally abandoned in the 13th century when the Mongols and Turks invaded the area. The town itself continued to receive Christian pilgrims until the thirteenth century, when caliph Baibars (r. 1260-1277) resettled the population to Hama. In the Syrian Civil War, the town was occupied by ISIS, before being liberated by Government forces on 19 June 2017 during the Southern Raqqa Offensive.