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Apamea - An Ancient Syrian City Raised from a Pile of Stones by One Man

posted on: Jun 16, 2021

 Apamea - An Ancient Syrian City Raised from a Pile of Stones by One Man

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

“It’s the love of my life! I only wish I could live long enough to see Apamea rise again from centuries of neglect.” Abd Al-Razaq Zaqzuq, Director, Department of Antiquities in the Hama region, seemed to be a happy man, bubbling with enthusiasm as he talked about his pet project – the reconstruction of the Seleucid city of Apamea.  He went on, “I am working day and night to make sure future generations in our country and tourists from all over the world will be able to gaze on one of our historic cities recreated from a pile of stones.”

The project is financed to a great extent by the entrepreneur and philanthropist, Dr. Osman Aidi – President of the luxury chain, Cham Palace Hotels – who has a passionate love for his country’s history.  With the money supplied by Dr. Aidi under the directorship of A. Zaqzuq, Apamea is rising like a phoenix from its centuries of slumber. Planning, directing and, at times, working with his own hands, Zaqzuq is slowly bringing the city, where once Antony and Cleopatra dallied, back to life.  With such love and dedication, he is reconstructing an important part of his country’s past. 

We began our journey to Apamea, 55 km (34 mi) away, from the elegant Apamea Cham Palace Hotel in Hama – a city noted for its 16 ancient creaking waterwheels, the largest 21 m (69 ft) in diameter. Like most visitors who visit the ruins of Apamea, we had dawdled a while in this luxurious abode before traveling to that ancient city.

As we drove through Hama’s wide clean streets, we could see no sign of the destruction caused when the Muslim Brethren rebelled and were crushed by the government forces, In fact, the city was booming and expanding in all directions.

 Apamea - An Ancient Syrian City Raised from a Pile of Stones by One Man

The fairly good highway traversed a rich agricultural countryside that has been producing crops since the dawn of civilization. Past the ruined Hellenistic Citadel of Sheizar, we made our way on the edge of the Ghab, a fertile valley whose marshes have been drained, making it one of the richest farming areas in Syria.

Our first stop was a khan, one of the best-preserved Ottoman caravanserais in Syria, situated in the shadows of Qalaat al-Mudiq (Citadel of the Defile). It has been renovated and turned into a museum housing exquisite mosaics found in the ruins of Apamea.  After examining these and other relics from Syria’s Greek and Roman past, we continued driving under the walls of Al-Mudiq. Viewed from below, this majestic brownish castle with massive towers rising from high cliffs was a postcard picture of a medieval stronghold.

 Apamea - An Ancient Syrian City Raised from a Pile of Stones by One Man

We drove up to the citadel from the north on a narrow road winding its way up to the citadel. Inside, the fortress is crowned with half-abandoned streets and rundown houses – a let down from its storybook appearance seen from the distance.  However, its ramparts offered a view of the green valley below and the ravine which gave the fortress its name. To the east, below the walls which were important during the Crusades, was the Greco/Roman city of Apamea – once a metropolis of 120,000, many of whom were nobles and rich merchants.

Apamea was established in 300 BC by one of Alexander the Great’s successors, the general Seleucus, and named after his Persian wife, Apamea.  For centuries it was more important than Damascus, richer than Antioch and older than Palmyra.  In its days of glory, it was one of the richest towns in the Roman Empire and in war could field 600 war-trained elephants. In Greek and Roman times, it was renowned for its philosophers’ sons and, later, in the Christian era it became the most important city in the Christian world and a center of philosophy and theology, especially of Monophysitism (the doctrine that Christ has only one nature) and emperors visited the city when it was under the sway of Rome – the most celebrated being Antony and Cleopatra.  Here, amid the city splendor, they rested and made love after returning from their wars in the East.

 Apamea - An Ancient Syrian City Raised from a Pile of Stones by One Man

In the subsequent centuries Apamea declined until eventually it was demolished by two earthquakes in 1157 and 1170 AD.  The ruins of the city were forgotten until 1930 when excavations began by Belgian archaeologists.  For many years only a minuscule part of the ruins was uncovered.  Restoration in earnest only began in 1965 and, in the 1980s and 1990s, under the directorship of Zaqzuq, work accelerated tremendously.  In less than a decade 400 columns – 200 in the last three years alone – have been re-erected along the ‘cardo’, the main monumental avenue 1,850 m (6,068 ft) long and 37.5 m (123 ft|) wide.

Getting out of our auto at the beginning of this avenue, I was pleasantly surprised.  A half dozen years previously I had visited the ruins which appeared to be only massive piles of stone.  Now this once chaotic spectacle had been somewhat tamed by the dozens of newly re-erected columns with their capitals.  The lofty standing pillars, a good number with twisted fluting, and their Corinthian capitals gives the onlooker an idea of what the city must have looked like when it was the number two city in the Middle East – only Antioch was larger.

All around us, as we walked along the impressive avenue still showing signs of Roman wheels, were broken pilasters, basins, friezes and finally cut building stones. Spread out in all directions were parts of Apamea’s hundreds of former edifices, enclosed within 7 km (4.5 mi) of once 10 m (33 ft) high walls – 6 of which have been uncovered.  This jumble of broken masonry gave the ruins a lunar-like look, but this was brought to order by the endless reconstructed columns.  

Work is in progress on about a third of the main street which remains to be uncovered.  Machines and men were excavating the dirt and re- erecting the columns at a dizzying pace for an archaeological site.  The few missing parts of the colonnade are being recast from cement and dust of the same stone from which the columns were hewn. It appears that Zaqzuq has in a half a dozen years reconstructed more of Apamea than was rebuilt in Palmyra by dozens of archaeologists working for a hundred years. 

 Apamea - An Ancient Syrian City Raised from a Pile of Stones by One Man

From the main colonnade, we stopped at the ruins of the governor’s palace, the Roman Temple of Fortune, the agora, the public baths, a number of Byzantine churches, and a large theater.  In a few years, if work goes on in the same pace as at present, most of these will be on the way to see the light of day.  In fact, Zaqzuq has plans drawn up for their future.

Yet, even if these main parts of Apamea are excavated, there remains vast areas of dirt and stone which have hidden the city’s treasures for centuries. Nevertheless, as Zaqzuq indicated himself, as long as he is alive and, perhaps, long after, work will go on. Today, the tumbled remnants of this Seleucid city, scattered as far as the eye can see, impart a poetic message of a world that was. Tomorrow, uncovered and partially restored, they will be a living history in stone of Syria’s past.