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, July 5, 2014

The Fortress of Sergiopolis in Syria

Defending The Persian Frontier

Resafa, known in Roman times as Sergiopolis and briefly as Anastasiopolis, was a city located in the Roman province of Euphratensis, in modern-day Syria. It is an archaeological site situated south-west of the city of Ar Raqqah and the Euphrates River.

Procopius describes at length the ramparts and buildings erected there by the Emperor Justinian. The walls of Resafa 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; there are also ruins of a church with three apses.


As you look at lonely Resafa in the desert, it is easy to forget that once it stood on one of the world's main roads, with populous towns and cities all around. It was on several great caravan roads, with Palmyra to the south, Dura-Europos southeast, and Aleppo on the west. Hardly a day passed that did not see streams of traffic converging on its walls. Caravans did not follow the edge of the Euphrates close by, as the ravines made travel difficult, and every small village expected their toll. Instead, the large caravans moved parallel to the river but farther inland. This put Resafa on the east-west trail.

Just to the north and northeast of Resafa there were two fords of the Euphrates, one at Nicephorium [ar-Rakka] and the lesser, at Thapsacus [Balis]. Elsewhere along the Euphrates the river came right up to the cliffside, forbidding an easy crossing. Thus travel from Palestine and Egypt was funneled up the broad valley between the foothills of the Antilebanon and Alawit ranges tot he west, and the higher plateau to the east called, al-Bisri [Bashan]. This eastern plateau is deeply cut many times with erosion valleys, extending the travel distance going around, or causing hardship on animal and handlers with constant ascent and descent.

The Roman-Byzantine Fortress in central Syria
was one of a series of forts protecting the eastern
frontier from invasion by the Persian Empire.

The village if Resafa had no spring or running water; it depended upon cisterns holding the winter and spring rains. The rainfall in this area is more than sufficient, enough for year-around pasturage to the south of Resafa.

The Bedouin still water their flocks with the brackish water from the open well at the north-west tip of the rampart. The rope, more than 120 feet long, shows how deep the well is. There are four immense, vaulted underground rain-water cisterns, still covered with water-tight cement.


The site dates to the 9th century BC, when a military camp was built by the Assyrians. During Roman times it was a desert outpost fortified to defend against the Sassanid Persians, and a station on the Strata Diocletiana.

It flourished as its location on the caravan routes linking Aleppo, Dura Europos, and Palmyra was ideal. Resafa had no spring or running water, so it depended on large cisterns to capture the winter and spring rains.

In the 4th century, it became a pilgrimage town for Christians coming to venerate Saint Sergius, a Christian Roman soldier said to have been martyred in Resafa during the Diocletianic Persecution. A church was built to mark his grave, and the city was renamed Sergiopolis. Indeed, it became the "most important pilgrimage center in Byzantine Oriens in [the] proto-Byzantine period", with a special appeal to the local Arabs, especially the Ghassanids.

The Persian Frontier  -  For 700 years there was an endless series of wars between the Empire and Persia in Anatolia and along the Mesopotamian border region of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.  Over the centuries different Roman Emperors built fortified cities like Dara to act as strong points to keep the Persians from raiding too far into imperial territory.

Resafa was planted right in the path of the Roman–Persian wars, and was therefore a well-defended city that had massive walls that surrounded it without a break. It also had a fortress.

The historian Procopius describes a raid by Arabs seeking plunder.  That caused the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century to build more massive fortifications commensurate with the city's status and wealth.  The walls consisted of 29 towers and 21 solid rectangular bastions.  Justinian installed a garrison to protect the city.

The Persian Khusrau I is credited with making an unsuccessful attack on the town.

The 638 AD Roman Syria had been overrun by invading Muslim Arabs.  There is no record of any serious attempt by the Romans to defend the Resafa Fortress.  The fortress was to defend Syria against Persians.  With Persia no longer a threat the troops may have been moved other fronts to face the Arabs.

In the 8th century, the Umayyad Caliph Hischam ibn Abd al-Malik (r. 724–743) made the city his favoured residence, and built several palaces around it.

The massive walls, formed of massive blocks of stone, surround Resafa almost without a break. It is possible to follow the sentry-walk for hundreds of yards at a stretch, and to enter the guard-houses where Byzantine garrisons kept watch over the desert.
There are three rectangular gates, the big central one for wagon traffic, two flanking entrances for pedestrian and horsemounted traffic. Roman arches, formed of white gypsum, sit on columns with Byzantine capitals. The gypsum is quarried fifteen miles away, and the white stone glitters like quartz crystals in the sun.

Fortifications at Sergiopolis (Rusafa).
Plan of part of the circuit-wall.
Above, section of a tower.
Below, elevation and section of part of the circuit-wall.

Elevation and plan of a part of the circuit-wall,
with stairs and a projecting tower.

Saints Sergius and Bacchus
Sergius and Bacchus were very popular throughout Late Antiquity.  In the Byzantine Empire, they were venerated as protectors of the army.  A large monastery church, the Little Hagia Sophia, was dedicated to them in Constantinople by Justinian I, probably in 527.  Sergius was a very popular saint in Syria and Christian Arabia.
The city of Resafa, which became a bishop's see, took the name Sergiopolis and preserved his relics in a fortified basilica. Resafa was improved by Emperor Justinian, and became one of the greatest pilgrimage centers in the East. 
Sergius and Bacchus were Roman citizens and high-ranking officers of the Roman Army, but their covert Christianity was discovered when they attempted to avoid accompanying a Roman official into a pagan temple with the rest of his bodyguard.  After they persisted in refusing to sacrifice to Jupiter in Emperor Galerius' company, they were publicly humiliated by being chained, dressed in female attire and paraded around town.
Galerius then sent them to Barbalissos in Mesopotamia to be tried by Antiochus, the military commander there and an old friend of Sergius.  Antiochus could not convince them to give up their faith, however, and Bacchus was beaten to death.  The next day Bacchus' spirit appeared to Sergius and encouraged him to remain strong so they could be together forever.
Over the next days, Sergius was also brutally tortured and finally executed at Resafa.
Speculation  -  If you read between the lines of history I think you see here two Gay Christians being honored.
(Saints Sergius and Bacchus)

Syria Resafa Sergiopolis North Entrance detail.

North gate of the city of Resafa.

Inside the Basilica of Saint Sergius
At one stage the city was known as Sergiopolis as it was named after a Saint. It was a pilgrimage for people visiting the grave of Saint Sergius, a martyred Christian soldier. A church was built to mark his grave and it became an important pilgrimage center in Byzantine period.
From the north gate, the Via Recta formed the main thoroughfare of the city. It is now no more than a pathway overgrown with grass, but lining it on either side there are still blocks of marble, the broken stumps of pillars and chunks of wall from the past.
The street leads to a first building of some size: the martyrium, a church where, at an early date, the bodies of Saint Sergius and his companions Bacchus and Julia were laid to rest. It is a basilican church with an apse. The floor and walls are made of gypsum stone found in Rasafa and the great monolithic columns are of rose-colored marble. The apsidal chapels are well preserved; the capitals and the archway carved like lace.

Underground water cistern at Resafa
There are still substantial sections of the city walls to be seen and some of the main buildings. Most impressive are the underground water cisterns which were needed because the city had no spring or running water. The massive underground cisterns were used to collect water from the winter and spring rains.

(al.amidache.free.fr/sergiopolis)      (Books.google.com)      (Aleppo Orthodox)

(Resafa)      (Procopius Buildings 2)

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