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Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)


"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Roman Fortress of Zenobia

The southern wall and citadel of the Roman fortress of Zenobia near Halabiye, Syria.


Roman Mesopotamia  -  Battle ground between Persia and Rome.


The river Euphrates was the shortest road from the Persian Empire to the Roman Empire. It was also one of the most accessible roads, because there was sufficient water for a big army.

For endless centuries both empires fought over the same ground of what is today Iraq, Turkey and Syria.  Halabiye was fortified in the 3rd century AD by Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, after whom the site was named in antiquity. After her revolt against the Roman Empire in 273, Halabiye was captured by the Romans and subsequently refortified as part of the Limes Arabicus.

It is likely that Fort Zenobia was rebuilt by the emperor Diocletian (284-305); a second building phase took place when Anastasius I was ruler of the Byzantine Empire (491-518); the next rebuilding can be dated to the reign of Justinian (527-565), who sent his general Belisarius to the east to fight against the Persians. This building phase is described at some length by Procopius.

The site must have been taken over by the Persians during their epic fight against the Byzantines in the first third of the sixth century, and may have remained abandoned when the Emperor Heraclius reconquered Syria. The Arabs took over the area in 637, reused Zenobia, and modified the citadel. However, because both Syria and Iraq were part of the Caliphate of Damascus, the site had lost much its strategic importance, and the Muslim occupation did not last very long.

The site occupies an area of 12 hectares (30 acres), protected by massive city walls and a citadel on top of a hill. Remains of two churches, a public bath complex and two streets have been excavated. These all date to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, who refortified the city in the 6th century AD.

The proposed construction of the Halabiye Dam on the Euphrates south of Halabiye will lead to the partial flooding of the site by the dam’s reservoir.

Outer façade of the northern city wall, looking west toward the Praetorium and the citadel.


By Procopius  (Buildings - Published in the 550s AD)

So these structures were erected by the Emperor Justinian in the manner which I have described in Mesopotamia and in Osroenê, as it is called.  And I shall describe the fashion in which his work was carried out on the right of the Euphrates River.  The other boundaries between the Romans and the Persians are in general of such a sort that the territories of the two peoples are adjacent to each other, and both peoples push out from their own territory and either fight with each other or compose their differences, as people will whenever nations differing in customs and in government hold any land on a common boundary.

For a land which is altogether bare and unproductive separates the Roman and the Persian territory for a great distance, and this contains nothing worth fighting for.  Both of them, however, have built forts carelessly of unbaked brick in the desert which chances to lie nearest to the land which they inhabit;  these forts never suffered attack from their neighbours, for both peoples lived there without enmity, since they possessed nothing which their adversaries might desire.  The Emperor Diocletian had built three forts, such as I have described, in this desert, one of which, Mambri by name, had fallen into decay in the long course of time and was restored by the Emperor Justinian.


The southern wall looking down to the Euphrates River.

At a distance of about five miles from this fort on the road to Roman territory, Zenobia, wife of Odonathus, who was ruler of the Saracens in that district, once founded a small city in earlier times and gave her name to it;  for the name she gave it was Zenobia, as was fitting.  But the long period of time that had elapsed since those events had reduced its circuit-wall to a ruin, since the Romans were quite unwilling to take care of it, and thus it had come to be altogether destitute of inhabitants.  So it was possible for the Persians freely, whenever they wished, to get into the middle of Roman territory before the Romans had word of the hostile inroad.

But the Emperor Justinian rebuilt Zenobia completely and he filled it quite full of inhabitants, and he stationed there a commander of select troops and a thoroughly adequate garrison, and made it a bulwark of the Roman Empire and a frontier barrier against the Persians;  indeed he did not simply restore its previous form, but he actually made it very much stronger than it was before.


The Praetorium, interior.

It is surrounded by cliffs which stand very close to the city, and for this reason it was possible for the enemy to shoot down from their summits upon the heads of the defenders of the circuit-wall.  This he was anxious to prevent, and so he built a certain additional structure on the top of the circuit-wall, at precisely the place where the cliffs are nearest, designed to serve permanently as a shelter for the men fighting there. Such a structure they call "wings" (ptera), because it appears to droop, as it were, from the wall.

However, it is impossible to describe all that the Emperor accomplished at Zenobia, since, seeing that it occupies a site far removed from any neighbour and on this account is sure to be always in danger, and that it is unable to secure succour because there are no Romans who live near at hand, the Emperor considered the city worthy, as well he might, of his unceasing attention above all other places. Nevertheless I shall describe a few of the things that were done there.

Video  -  The Roman Fortress of Zenobia (Halabiye, Syria)




By the side of Zenobia flows the Euphrates River, passing to the east of it and coming very close to the circuit-wall on that side; but since high mountains rise beside the river at this point, the stream cannot spread out at all, but by reason of the proximity of these mountains and because it is constrained by its banks, which are hard, it would gather its stream into an extraordinarily narrow space whenever it chanced that rains caused it to rise in flood, and would pour out against the wall and immediately rise, not only about the foundations but even as far as the battlements.

And when the wall had once been soaked through by the water, the result was that the river loosened the courses of stones and thereafter the wall stood upon a dangerous conglomeration of stones.  But he constructed a huge protective wall (probolos) of hard stone of equal length with the circuit-wall, and caused this to check at that point the turbulence of the river when it rose, and so freed the wall entirely from harm from this source, even should the river rise to a great height in its most violent state.

He also found that portion of the city's circuit-wall which faces the north dangerously weakened by the passage of time; so he first took it down, along with the outworks, clear to the ground, and then rebuilt it, yet not as it had been before, for at that point the buildings of the city had been especially crowded, causing trouble to those who lived there.  But he went beyond the place where the foundations of the circuit-wall and the outworks had formerly stood, even beyond the moat itself, and there he built the wall, which is a remarkable sight in itself and exceptionally beautiful, thus materially increasing the area of Zenobia.


A view from the citadel.

Furthermore, a certain hill stood very close to the city on the side toward the west, from which it was possible for the barbarians, whenever they attacked the city, to shoot down with impunity upon the heads of the defenders, and even upon the heads of those who stood in the middle of the city.  So the Emperor Justinian connected the fortifications with this hill on both sides, and thus brought it inside Zenobia; and he escarped the whole hill throughout, so that no one might climb it to work harm from there, and placed another fortification on its summit and thus made the city altogether inaccessible to those who wished to assault it.  For beyond the hill it chances that the ground is very low and for this reason it is impossible for the enemy to approach it at all closely.  And immediately above the depression rise the mountains which face toward the west.

Yet this Emperor did not provide only for the safety of this city, but he erected churches there and barracks for the military forces;  nay more, he added to it public baths and stoas. For all these operations the master-builders Isidorus and John gave their assistance — John a Byzantine and Isidorus a Milesian by birth, nephew of the Isidorus whom I have mentioned before.  Both of them were young men, but they displayed a natural ability beyond their years, and they had come to their full maturity with their experience in the Emperor's undertakings.

The Euphrates and, beyond it, the towers of Zalebiye.

The southern wall.

Inside the Praetorium.

(Byzantine Mesopotamia)

(Procopius Buildings)

(Zenobia - Halabiye. Wikipedia)

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