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Archived International Travel Highlights

Christine Shepardson: Syria and Turkey, 2010

Some people told me I was crazy to go to Syria – they don't know what they're missing! Thanks to an Individual Research Grant from the American Academy of Religion, this May I spent three weeks travelling in Syria and Turkey with my colleague Dayna Kalleres (University of California, San Diego).  The reason for my trip was to study the topography and early Christian buildings and museum artifacts that will help me finish the book I am writing about Christianity in the fourth-century city of Antioch (today Antakya, Turkey near the border with Syria). 

The trip was amazing in every possible way, from the impressive and moving early Christian and Roman remains that we were able to see, to the generous and friendly people we met, to the delicious food that we ate as we travelled from Istanbul to Antakya in Turkey, hopped a bus across the Syrian border to Aleppo, drove along the Euphrates River to Dura Europos and Mari on the border with Iraq, took a bus to the famous Roman desert city of Palmyra and then to Damascus, and then flew back to Istanbul.  From Istanbul I travelled on my own to Izmir and the famous Roman sites of Ephesus and Sardis before returning to Istanbul and then back to Knoxville.  It was an incredible trip, extremely useful for my research and full of interesting adventures.

Nearing Syria-Iraq Border
Nearing Syria-Iraq Border
The Euphrates River
The Euphrates River
The Euphrates River
The Euphrates River
Roman remains in Syria
Roman remains in Syria
Street in Aleppo
Street in Aleppo
Tea & Antiques, Aleppo Souq
Tea & Antiques, Aleppo Souq

Antioch (Antakya, Turkey) was one of the largest and most important cities in the Roman Empire, and played an important role in early Christian history.  The city is home to the so-called Cave Church of St. Peter, with its impressive Crusader-era façade, as well as a famous Mosaic Museum that displays Roman mosaics from Antioch and its suburb Daphne (Harbiye).

Hillside of Antakya
Hillside of Antakya
Crusader Facade of S. Peter's, Antakya
Crusader Facade of S. Peter's, Antakya
Mosaic Museum, Antakya
Mosaic Museum, Antakya

Beroea (Aleppo, Syria) was closely connected with the metropolis of Antioch in late antiquity, and was home to its own early Christian community. Today visitors to the city can also see its historic citadel complex, a famous souq, and numerous mosques from its long history as a regional center of Islam.

Aleppo
Aleppo
Citadel, Aleppo
Citadel, Aleppo
Entrance to Souq, Aleppo
Entrance to Souq, Aleppo

Qala'at Samaan is the site of the remains of the early Christian monastic complex that developed around the pillar of the famous ascetic and saint Symeon the Stylite (d. 459).  During his lifetime, Christian pilgrims travelled from all over the world to visit Symeon, whose ascetic practice included standing on a platform atop a tall stone pillar for almost forty years.

Monastery of Saint Symeon
Monastery of Saint Symeon
Remains of Symeon's Pillar
Remains of Symeon's Pillar
Remains of Symeon's Pillar
Remains of Symeon's Pillar
Details of Symeon's Monastery
Details of Symeon's Monastery

The so-called "Dead Cities" include the haunting remains of hundreds of late Roman and early Byzantine towns that are scattered across the limestone plateau outside of Beroea (Aleppo).  Numerous early Christian ascetics also inhabited this region, as documented especially by Theodoret (d. 457) in his Religious History.

Early Church at Qalb Lozeh
Early Church at Qalb Lozeh
Early Church at Qalb Lozeh
Early Church at Qalb Lozeh
Kirkbizeh
Kirkbizeh
Roman Road, Antioch to Beroea
Roman Road, Antioch to Beroea
Jerada
Jerada
Jerada
Jerada
Jerada
Jerada
Ruweiha
Ruweiha
Ruweiha
Ruweiha
Ruweiha
Ruweiha
Roman Mosaic
Roman Mosaic
Serjilla
Serjilla
Serjilla
Serjilla
Serjilla
Serjilla
Al Bara
Al Bara

 

Apamea is another famous Roman town in northern Syria

Roman Road of Apamea
Roman Road of Apamea
Roman Road of Apamea
Roman Road of Apamea
Precarious Remains, Apamea
Precarious Remains, Apamea

Sergiopolis (Rasafa, Syria), on the Euphrates River, became a famous Christian pilgrimage destination in late antiquity, with a focus on the cult of St. Sergius. The remains of the Byzantine basilica are impressive, as is the vast Roman cistern that housed the city's water supply.

City Gate, Sergiopolis
City Gate, Sergiopolis
Sergiopolis
Sergiopolis
Basilica of Saint Sergius, Sergiopolis (outside)
Basilica of Saint Sergius, Sergiopolis (outside)
Basilica of Saint Sergius, Sergiopolis (inside)
Basilica of Saint Sergius, Sergiopolis (inside)

The Roman city of Dura Europos, nestled along the Euphrates River, was destroyed in a Persian attack in the middle of the third century CE.  While the remains of its houses and temples are fascinating, it is particularly famous among historians because of two buildings: a synagogue and a house-church.  These two buildings abutted the city wall, which caved into the buildings during the destruction, filling them with rubble.  When archaeologists removed the rubble after World War I, they discovered that it had beautifully preserved stunning wall paintings that offer an unparalleled glimpse into the intricate decorations of a third-century Roman synagogue and house church. The synagogue has been moved to the National Museum in Damascus and we did not have permission to photograph it, but some images are available online.

City Gate, Dura Europos
City Gate, Dura Europos
City Wall, Dura Europos
City Wall, Dura Europos
Dura Europos
Dura Europos

Palmyra is a well-known oasis in the middle of the Syrian desert, an important caravan stop since ancient times.  Queen Zenobia is one of Palmyra's most famous rulers from the Roman period. Its Temple of Bel towers impressively over the remains of the city, which are particularly beautiful seen from atop the medieval citadel as the sun sets across the desert.

Camels (en route to Palmyra)
Camels (en route to Palmyra)
Palmyra (from Citadel)
Palmyra (from Citadel)
Tombs at Palmyra
Tombs at Palmyra
Temple of Bel, Palmyra
Temple of Bel, Palmyra
Temple of Bel, Palmyra
Temple of Bel, Palmyra
City Gate, Palmyra
City Gate, Palmyra

Damascus includes not only numerous important Roman and early Christian artifacts in its National Museum, but is also famous in Christian history for its association with the apostle Paul.  Like Aleppo, Damascus also has a very long and rich Islamic history, and is home to the beautiful eighth-century Umayyad Mosque.

Church of Saint Paul, Damascus
Church of Saint Paul, Damascus
Statue of Paul falling from Horse, Damascus
Statue of Paul falling from Horse, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Reliquary of John the Baptist
Reliquary of John the Baptist
 

Ma'alula is a small Christian town north of Damascus, which preserves traditions of the cult of the famous saint Thecla as well as an early Christian church associated with saint Sergius.  The Christians in Ma'alula have recently received international attention when it was discovered that they still speak a version of Aramaic, the common language of first-century Galilee where Jesus lived.

Ma'alula
Ma'alula

The well-preserved Roman ruins at Ephesus (Turkey) are deservedly famous, especially the enormous theater, the intricate façade of Celsus's memorial library, and the cult of Artemis of Ephesus.  The Roman city is also remembered as the recipient of Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians.  Its restored Roman Terrace Houses give a wonderful sense of the architecture and topography of Roman living space.

Ephesus
Ephesus
Roman Theater, Ephesus
Roman Theater, Ephesus
Roman Theater, Ephesus
Roman Theater, Ephesus
Roman Theater, Ephesus
Roman Theater, Ephesus
Library of Celsus, Ephesus
Library of Celsus, Ephesus
Library of Celsus, Ephesus
Library of Celsus, Ephesus
Library of Celsus, Ephesus
Library of Celsus, Ephesus
Roman Public Toilets
Roman Public Toilets
Roman Terrace Houses
Roman Terrace Houses
Roman Terrace Houses
Roman Terrace Houses
Roman Terrace Houses
Roman Terrace Houses
Roman Plumbing, in situ
Roman Plumbing, in situ
Artemis of Ephesus
Artemis of Ephesus
   

Sardis is particularly well known among Roman historians for its vast and lavishly decorated Roman synagogue. It was also home to the second-century Christian bishop Melito who wrote a homily On the Passover that is critical of Jews and Judaism.

Roman shops along the road, Sardis
Roman shops along the road, Sardis
Synagogue of Sardis
Synagogue of Sardis
Synagogue of Sardis
Synagogue of Sardis
Synagogue of Sardis
Synagogue of Sardis

Istanbul is a vibrant city with a history too rich to describe briefly here. Of course the famous sixth-century Hagia Sophia church (later mosque, now museum), the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet), the Topkapi Palace, and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum are among the highlights for a historian of early Christianity, as are the Hippodrome, the Basilica Cistern, the Chora Church, the Little Hagia Sophia Mosque (formerly a sixth-century church), and numerous other sites.

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet)
Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet)

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