|Self portrait in Serjilla, under a sun so hot that you can't even feel the sweat escaping your pores.|
The jumping off point for the Dead Cities is the small town of al-Ma'arra (معرة النعمان), best known as the home of the blind poet, philosopher, and scholar Abu al-'Ala al-Ma'arri (أبو العلاء المعري). Born in the 10th century, in his day Al-Ma'arri earned a reputation as an infamous heretic thanks to his critiques of Islam and religion in general. (He once wrote, "The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains but no religion, and those with religion but no brains.") Surprisingly, even if al-Ma'arri is maligned by modern religious scholars throughout the Muslim world, he is revered in his hometown as a local hero. A bronze bust of him stands in the center of town.
Al-Ma'arra is also home to an atrocious legend from the time of the first Crusade, several decades after Al-Ma'arri's death. In 1098, the Crusader army, fresh off the successful siege of Antioch (in southern Turkey) marched south into Syria in search of supplies. The Crusaders arrived at al-Ma'arra and massacred the inhabitants—standard practice, of course. What came next was not standard, as one knight related to the Pope in a letter: "A terrible famine racked the army in Ma'arra, and placed it in the cruel necessity of feeding itself upon the bodies of the Saracens." This history is well known even today in Syria as an example of European brutality.
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Hopping a series of rundown service taxi vans, I made my way to al-Ma'arra and then to the Dead Cities of Serjilla (سرجيلا) and al-Bara (البارة). Today, only crumbling stone structures remain in the place of the once extensive Byzantine towns. Some houses, churches, and other buildings are still recognizable, in various states of collapse. In al-Bara, great pyramid-shaped burial chambers rise above the olive groves that have been planted among the ruins.
While fascinating to pick through, in hindsight the Dead Cities are probably not best visited in an afternoon in August, Syria's hottest month.