October 7, 2022

Sergiopolis, the Site of the Martyrdom of Saints Sergius and Bacchus

On October 7th the memory of the two saints Sergius and Bacchus is celebrated. Their history and their martyrdom are closely linked to Syria.

Traveling in the Syrian desert and specifically on the northern road, which connects Palmyra with the Euphrates, the emperor Diocletian had built one of the great border camps of Roman Syria. Sergius and Bacchus, two Christian soldiers who refused to renounce their faith, were martyred here. The place acquired mythic proportions because of the martyrdom, and Sergius especially - because the name of Bacchus carried many ancient “sins” – became the pre-eminent saint of the tribes of the Syrian desert.

In order to protect and serve the crowds of pilgrims who flocked to the ruined camp, Emperor Justinian I fortified the vast area around the martyrdom site of Saint Sergius with a high enclosure. This came to be another great construction of the builder-emperor on the border of the Euphrates. The walls of Sergiopolis, which are still well preserved, are over 1600 feet in length and about 1000 feet in width; round or square towers were erected about every hundred feet. He built monumental gates on the four sides of the wall, rebuilt the old church with three apses and built dozens of underground cisterns to provide drinking water. Sergiopolis, a city dedicated to Saint Sergius, survived several raids for centuries.

Sergiopolis became, after Jerusalem, the most important pilgrimage center in the Arab world, with 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 Sergiopolis and its shrine from nomadic marauders and the Lakhmids of Mesopotamia.

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. In 1093, Metropolitan Symeon restored the great Basilica; which attests to the continuing existence of Christianity in Sergiopolis. The city was finally abandoned in the 13th century when the Mongols and Turks invaded the area.

In the Syrian Civil War, Sergiopolis (now known as Resafa, to the west of Raqqa) was occupied by ISIS, before being liberated by Government forces on 19 June 2017 during the Southern Raqqa Offensive.