Resafa (الرصافة‎‎) aka Sergiopolis


Location: Ar-Raqqah Governorate   Map

Found: 9th century BC


The ruins of Resafa (in Arabic الرصافة‎?, al-Ruṣāfa), also known as Sergiopolis, are located in the Syrian desert, just 35 km south of the Euphrates, where the caravan routes leading towards Dura Europos in the south-east converged and towards Aleppo to the west. From Palmyra and coming from Bosra, the famous paved road built by Diocletian headed towards the Euphratesia with a station in this city. Great trade came under its walls, and Resafa also served as a control center, providing protection for trade threatened by local tribes. To indicate the city you can also find the name Rasappa (in the ancient Syriac language); later Rhisapha; in the Vulgate we find Reseph (2 Kings 19.2; Isaiah 37.12).


History of Resafa


The city had been assumed to have been built before the 9th century BC. and soon dominated by the Assyrians, whose presence would be testified by some lists that appoint governors of that nationality in the region between 839 and 737 BC. In these lists Resafa would be the capital of Laqe province; from biblical mentions (Isaiah 37.12 and 2 Kings 19.12) we learn that the desert road from the Euphrates to Palmyra already existed and passed through a city known as Reseph. However, we have no archaeological evidence to support such an early settlement.


Roman domination

We have reliable sources for the city only for the late ancient period: the Notita Dignitatum testifies that Diocletian (284-305 AD), fortified, with a squadron of native knights, the equites promoti indigenae, the castrum of Resafa which became an important military outpost as well as an economic center. A little later the city would become a pilgrimage destination for Christians, because the soldier Sergius had suffered martyrdom there: according to the Vita SS. Sergii et Bacchi, the two were soldiers, primicerius and Secondocerius at the palace of Maximinus Daia, who was assigned the eastern part of the Empire and who died in 313. The two were accused before the emperor of being Christians and, since they refused to recant, they were tortured and killed: Bacchus died of fatigue near the castrum of Barbalisso, while Sergio was beheaded and buried in Resafa. Despite the poor historical reliability of such news, the cult of the martyr immediately developed, which had its center precisely in the city of Resafa. The city's wealth was due to the wool trade and the rich donations for the saint's sanctuary.

Shortly after 431 John of Antioch ordained the first bishop of Resafa, Mariano or Marinianus. Subsequently the city became the seat of a metropolitan, appointed by the emperor Anastasius I. The emperor himself officially renamed it Sergiopolis in 491.

In 524 Bishop Sergius, who is credited with important interventions in the main church of the city, was sent by Justinian as ambassador to al-Mundhir, the head of the semi-independent Ghassanid dynasty.

In the 6th century the Persian threat was renewed. Justinian strengthened the defensive line which included the city of Zenobia (Halabiya), Sergiopolis (Rusafa) and the fortified settlement of Qasr ibn Wardan. However, despite the peace made with Justinian, in 540 the Sasanian ruler Chosroes I broke into Syria. Procopius of Caesarea tells us about the bishop of Resafa, Candide who, having not kept the agreements made with the Persians, was imprisoned and tortured[5] and in De aedificiis Procopius again recalls the buildings built by Justinian in the city (even if sometimes these are constructions of previous emperors).


Arab domination

The city was lost by the Romans in the 7th century: the Arabs, sent by the caliph ʿUmar, who reigned between 634 and 644, obtained the definitive victory at Yarmūk in 636. During the period of the Umayyad caliphal dynasty the city - called in Arabic Ruṣāfa (in Arabic ﺍﻟﺮﺼﺎﻓـة‎?) - was the residence of the caliph Hishām, who ruled between 724 and 743, and a sūq, a covered market and a khān, i.e. a caravanserai, were built there. With the advent of the new Abbasid dynasty, a new fortress was created in nearby al-Raqqa. In the 8th century the city suffered some damage due to an earthquake, but a small nucleus of inhabitants continued to reside in Resafa/Ruṣāfa: the stone houses show continuous use from the 6th to the 13th century. The Arab doctor Ibn Butlān was a guest in the city at the bishop's house in 1050, while the geographer Yāqūt, who stopped there around 1225, saw a convent full of beauties still inhabited by monks. The city had remained a pilgrimage destination: the knights who came to the East for the crusades went there, as evidenced by the discovery of a silver container with the coat of arms of the French nobleman Raul I of Couzy, who participated in the third crusade. The container was found buried together with other silver dishes, perhaps to be saved from the arrival of the Mongols, who descended on Syria between 1259 and 1260. The arrival of the Mongols first and of the Turks then led to the abandonment of the city which periodically continued to host groups of nomadic shepherds.


Civil buildings

The city walls are very well preserved, with a quadrilateral plan, with circular towers at the corners; the side that suffered the least damage is the north. The construction work began around the 6th century, to replace the older circle, perhaps made of mud bricks, in anticipation of attacks by the Persians, and in particular, probably before 542 , date of the siege of the city, remembered by Procopius of Caesarea, by Cosroes I, who however failed to conquer it.

The wall remained 10-12 m high, and was built with a triple defense system: a peribolo with high circular towers and larger towers at the corners, circular or rectangular, a lower curtain (the antimural ) interspersed with bastions and a moat. The peribolo reaches three floors in height, of which the intermediate one, which is very large, is open towards the inside by a series of large arches.

Each wall of the walls preserves an access door: the best preserved ones are the east and north ones and the latter also presents a rich ornamentation, which testifies to the activity of the local workshops, with a simplification of the decorative apparatus which demonstrates its departure from metropolitan traditions. This ornamentation is perhaps due to the fact that the North Gate represented the main access to the city: the most important caravan routes reached here.

The city was located far from waterways that could satisfy the needs of the population, so the water supply took place through some large cisterns positioned outside the city walls and, with a system of canalizations, filters and tanks, drinking water it reached the city near other cisterns, of which however few remains remain.

Inside the walls there are remains of buildings dating back to different eras and purposes, indicated for convenience with the letters of the alphabet.
Building G, probably from the Arab era, may have been a spa building;
building K is instead a cistern from the Byzantine period;
building L dates back to the Byzantine era and is made up of two apses connected by a series of arches, of undefined use;
building P consists of a rectangular courtyard with rectangular sections in the north and south walls. The foundations date back to the Roman period, but the brick vaults date back to a later era; its most probable use is that of storing goods.
building F which was also considered a Basilica and indicated with the name of Basilica C, dating back to around the 5th-6th century, of which only the central nave remains, which ends with an apse surmounted by a semi-dome, and a quadrangular room, which flanks the apse.

The most interesting civil building, however, is located just outside the city walls: initially it was mistaken for a church, while thanks to an inscription it was possible to understand that it was an audience hall, used by the Ghassanid king al-Mundhir . The plan is a Greek cross inscribed in a square. Rather squat cruciform pillars and arches divide the interior into nine bays: the central, larger one must have had a pyramidal wooden roof, the four bays on the main axes are rectangular in shape and have a barrel roof made of stone blocks, while the four small corner bays have vaulted domes. A semicircular exedra, aligned with the entrance, where the public official or administrator sat, is flanked by two rectangular rooms.


Religious buildings

The city has numerous religious buildings, built thanks to the spread of the cult of the martyr Sergius, who tradition wanted buried in Resafa. It is not known exactly which building housed the relics of this martyr, who is celebrated on October 7 and became the Syriac national saint.

Basilica A
Basilica A belongs to the largest complex of ruins in the city and which includes remains from both the Byzantine and Arab eras, also known as the Basilica of San Sergio due to the presence of the name of this bishop on the capitals of the central nave. The discovery of the inscription with a dedication to the Holy Cross initially led to the belief that the church had this name; although now we are much more cautious and it is believed that the dedication could also refer to an annex and not to the entire basilica. The building has undergone many renovations over time; to simplify, we can speak of three phases, of which only the first two were commissioned by Christians; the latter in fact consists mainly of Arabic additions. The original layout included a building with three naves with a horseshoe apse, which housed the altar and the synthronon or bishop's seat, flanked by two square-shaped side rooms connected to the upper floors. The central nave is divided into three spaces by arches on pillars. In the middle of the central nave is the bema, with a tripartite plan consisting of vestibule, podium and hemicycle, all three paved. The church was perhaps built in the early 6th century, while the first transformations date back to the end of the 6th century, which consisted of a new flooring and work on the roof. In the second half of the 7th century the arcades were modified with the insertion of arches (perhaps for reasons of stability) and the bema was remodeled - perhaps with the insertion of a tabernacle. In the 11th century, further consolidation works were carried out, inserting buttresses. Little remains of the decoration of the basilica but, from the remains found during the various excavation campaigns, we can believe that the church was covered in marble and decorated with floor and wall mosaics. The sculptural decoration has remained to a minimal extent: it is mostly the capitals and the moldings and profiling of the string course frames and the architraves. The only remaining fresco is located in a two-story annex to the south-east of the basilica, but it is rather ruined; represents a gemmed cross between acanthus spirals. A fragment of marble floor is found in a nearby annex, and represents various animal species with a rather generic symbolic connotation (deer, peacocks) in a paradisiacal habitat, which has led us to think of a baptismal connotation for this building. The last phase consists of inserting the mosque inside the northern courtyard. The Christian basilica and mosque coexisted peacefully until the city was abandoned in the 13th century. An interesting discovery also made in this area shows how the cult of Sergius still attracted pilgrims to the city: 5 liturgical vessels in nielloed and gilded silver, dating back to the 13th century, had been buried in a hole and wrapped in pieces of linen, perhaps due to the invasion of the Mongols.

10 meters south of the North Gate, the main entrance to the city, stands the building also known as Martyrion. The church has a rectangular plan, with the internal space divided into three naves by pillars, while the western wall and the two longitudinal ones in the middle curve outwards to form exedras, giving life to a three-conch structure. As regards the central nave, the space to be covered was very large and therefore it can be assumed that it was crowned by a pyramidal or flat roof. The central nave ends with an apse in the east wall, adorned with a cornice that closes the dome. This type of building generally had a martyr connotation, however buildings with a triconch plan were also used in Syria as simple episcopal churches. The dating of the building varies between the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century, therefore between the reign of Anastasius I and that of Justinian I. The presence of a synthronon and a presumed baptistery meant that the building was considered the 6th century cathedral.

Basilica B
Very little remains of Basilica B, the southern corner of the apse and two rooms to the south-east. We know that the building was built on a series of pre-existing buildings, the oldest dating back to the 1st century AD; in addition to these, the remains of a building dating back to the 5th century have been identified. The excavations have brought to light a building with three naves, separated by a row of ten columns. The building was probably preceded by a portico along the south wall. The apse area is the most complex, with a series of annexes, two of which were certainly intended for martyrdom worship. Traces of graffiti praising the martyr Leonzio were found. Materials from this church have been found reused in other buildings in the city; in particular an epigraph - found in the mosque - which speaks of a reconstruction starting from the foundations of this building dating back to 518. The 4th century remains could therefore be pertinent to the first martyrion of Sergius.