Concrete island: the abandoned MP-203 highway, Spain

4 10 2014

Two miles south-east of Mejorada del Campo – a small satellite town of Madrid – the semi-arid landscape of thorns and hardy bushes suddenly reveals the MP-203 highway: over a bridge to nowhere, the silent concrete dual carriageway curves northwards to the horizon. Standing on the bridge, I film the highway: how long before I will capture the powerful sense of emptiness, I wondered? A few seconds? A minute? Ten minutes? The wind picks up, shaking the small bushes that have gained a foothold in the central reservation below.

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Intended as a relief road for the congested Madrid-Barcelona highway, this 12.5km stretch of highway was started in 2005 and 70 million Euros were ploughed into the project before construction work stopped abruptly in 2008. As it became clear that Spain would not be emerging from its deep recession any time soon, the highway project was shelved and has remained unfinished and abandoned for six years.

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In recent years, the Mail Online has published many articles on the numerous abandoned construction projects that now litter the Spanish landscape; the melancholy tone of these articles countered by a barely disguised schadenfreude at just how far the Spanish economy has sunk (well, compared to Britain anyway). In the Mail Online‘s estimation, the Spanish, it seems, always get ahead of themselves; their abandonments just desserts for their seemingly-intractable hubris.

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Perhaps one of the Mail Online‘s journalists should actually visit the abandoned highway; for it is an extraordinarily disconcerting site that raises questions about not only the future of all economies dominated by boom-and-bust capitalism, but also the place of the motorway in our imagination. For here is ruin at its most banal and also at its most brutal – the great swathe of concrete suddenly seeming like an alien entity that has simply appeared in the otherwise rural landscape. Without an endless stream of cars (which effectively removes the motorway as a ‘real’ space to be experienced), a road on this scale seems inhuman and out of time, as if both prehistoric and futuristic at the same time. If walking on a deserted motorway is a popular trope in many a post-apocalyptic fantasy (such as the first episode of The Walking Dead), then actually doing it is to realise just how inhuman motorways are; to walk on one is to lose yourself in a desert of concrete, devoid of orientating landmarks.

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As I wondered about the effect of this ruin in reverse, I was led to think of J. G. Ballard’s own fantasia of the motorway, Concrete Island (1974). Charting the  story of a lone male driver who crashes and becomes marooned on a patch of waste ground entirely enveloped by elevated motorways (based on the Westway in London), Ballard’s novel forensically documents an enforced experience of living in the fortress-like space created by the intersection of these monstrous roads, resulting in the Robinson Crusoe-like central character eventually accepting it as his home. As I left the surface of my concrete island (after barely an hour) and returned to the bustling streets of central Madrid, I realised that to truly embrace the motorway as a human space might require as radical a transformation as that seen in Ballard’s cautionary tale.





Sewer, sump, swamp: drowned Londons

29 08 2014

Matija Keser, London Underwater, post-apocalyptic wallpaper

Matija Keser, London Underwater, post-apocalyptic wallpaper

The prospect of drowned cities is a significant part of the rhetoric of climate change: from recent maps issued by the Environment Agency showing the catastrophic flooding that might result from increased tidal surges, to Google Earth’s Flood Simulation software that allows one to picture the effects of apocalyptic rises in sea levels on London’s iconic buildings, the tops of its skyscrapers the only visible reminders of the city beneath. At the same time, both recent literature and, to a lesser extent, television, have enlarged these powerful images into fully-fledged narratives: from the eccentricities of Will Self’s The Book of Dave (2006), where a 100-metre sea-level rise reduces London to the settlement of Ham, which is now the top of Hampstead Heath; to the turgid TV film Flood (2007), when an enormous tidal surge overwhelms the Thames Barrier, flooding the whole of central London.

Map issued by the Environment Agency showing the flooding of London due to future tidal surges

Map issued by the Environment Agency in 2014 showing the flooding of London due to future tidal surges

 

Google Earth Design (2011), London under 80m of water

Google Earth Design (2011), London under 80m of water

Yet, the submerged city has long been a significant trope in the literary destruction of London, and going back to these precedents enlarges and complicates the meanings of contemporary prospects of urban flooding. In the literary imagination, the submerged city is a representation that acts as a metaphor for a wide variety of processes, whether the revenge of nature, the unconscious mind, the return of the past, or the processes of ruination. Here, I focus on three literary visions of drowned London: as sewer, sump and swamp.

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Richard Jefferies’s After London (1884) is an ur-text of the post-apocalyptic genre, a deeply strange book that channels the author’s expertise as a naturalist, his neo-medievalist yearnings and his hatred of industrial modernity. In this novel, the cause of the end of London is unspecified, but Jefferies’ text hints at vast geological upheavals that have resulted in England becoming unrecognisable: a vast lake surrounded by pastoral landscapes and a chivalric society of feuding nobles. Yet, overshadowing this otherwise bucolic post-apocalyptic England is what remains of London: a toxic wasteland that nobody comes out of alive. When the novel’s hero, Felix, accidentally ends up lost in the former metropolis’s poisonous miasma, he experiences a city both drowned and petrified:

‘As he advanced, the remnants of buildings increased in number…In some places the crystallised wall had fallen of itself, and he could see down into the cavern; for the house had either been built partly underground, or, which was more probable, the ground had risen. Whether the walls had been of brick or stone or other material he could not tell; they were now like salt.’

As revealed by Jefferies, London has literally been drowned in its own wastes: first the city’s crumbling buildings choked its rivers, creating a stagnant swamp; then the ground rose and the sewers came to the surface, further poisoning its already foul waters. In this vision of submergence, London’s vertical structure (the characteristic Victorian high and the low, the above and below ground) is flattened, but this leads not to redemption (as it might in socialist narratives) but extinction. If the cataclysmic forces that precipitated the end of London were beyond human control, the city’s toxic afterlife was a direct indictment of the vertical city’s environmental and social degradation.

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As After London demonstrates, the idea of submergence grows out of an awareness of the city’s multiple layers. If these layers must normally be imagined to be seen in their totality, then at certain times, the city’s vertical structure might be inadvertently revealed, such as in the aftermath of the Blitz during the Second World War. Perhaps nowhere are the war ruins of London evoked more strongly than in Rose Macaulay’s 1950 novel The World my Wilderness. Here, the city’s ruins play host to adolescents, namely the exiled 17-year old Barbary and her half-brother Raoul. In this novel, which drew on Macaulay’s intimate knowledge of wartime London, the ruins of the Blitz are a refuge for traumatised children who have yet to work through the catastrophic upheavals they have just experienced. In the City of London – where over half of its buildings were either damaged or destroyed by German bombs – the city’s layers are temporarily revealed, creating a spectral landscape of half-exposed cellars and caverns, staircases reaching to the open sky, and abundant vegetation reclaiming the ruins.

In Macaulay’s ruined London, the underground spaces act as a sump for what cannot be accommodated in the post-war world, namely the unhealed traumas of the recent return to savagery. Indeed, the submerged city points to the disturbing notion that this sump of savagery might indeed be the bedrock of civilisation, rather than a temporary aberration:

‘No civilisation lasted more than a thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its own say and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it too would take shape and have its day.’

Swamp

The memory of savagery forms a key ingredient in perhaps the most powerful literary vision of submerged London: namely J. G. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World. Widely seen now as prophetic of climate change, Ballard’s novel uses the image of the drowned city to reflect on how humans might adapt themselves to cataclysmic changes in the environment. Set many decades after an intense increase in solar radiation had led to massive temperature rises and the melting of the polar ice caps, a small party of scientists are leading a reconnaissance trip before joining what’s left of humanity in the arctic – the only inhabitable zone left on the earth. All else has reverted to the Paleozoic period: drowned by the rising seas and now subject to boiling temperatures, London has become a tropical swamp of flora and fauna that had evolved accordingly: giant iguanas now reside in former office buildings which are smothered under silt; enormous mosquitos plague the visitors; and the whole steaming environment secretes a ‘terrible stench….the sweet-compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcasses.’

Ballard’s hallucinatory vision of a submerged London in turn haunts the main character of the novel, Kerans, who, like others in the book, is experiencing his own inner evolution as he eventually yields to his residual Paleozoic self and becomes one with the new environment (even though that undoubtedly leads to his premature death). In Ballard’s view, the drowned city mirrors our own unconscious minds, that is the ‘inner space’ of submerged desire, historical memory and as yet undreamt of possibilities. For Ballard, accessing the submerged world holds the the key to redemption – it makes room for an alternative consciousness to emerge that may chart new trajectories of history into the future.

Sewer, swamp, sump: very few of the recent imaginings of how London will be affected by climate change offer such a rich diversity of representations as these. Yet, if Ballard is right, they are all caught up in a ceaseless exchange between the material and the mental. The submerged city is always to some extent a mirror of our own submergence; if it drowns, we too must drown.





Ruin imaginaries: Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

17 07 2014
1. Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

1. Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

On a soggy Sunday morning in Snowdonia, I took the opportunity to re-visit Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 cinematic masterpiece Stalker. It’s a film like no other – an immersive, meditative science fiction story that moves at such a glacial pace that, by the end of its two-and-a-half-hour running time, one is either mesmerised or bored to distraction. Far more spiritually infused than its literary source, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1971), Stalker takes you on a snail’s-paced journey into a post-apocalyptic world of mudane detritus, damp featureless landscapes and industrial ruination, all suffused with melancholic longing.

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By the afternoon, the Welsh rain had cleared and I drove up to Blanaeu Ffestiniog to explore the extraordinary landscape to the north of this slate mining town. One of the wettest built-up areas in Britain, Blaenau Ffestiniog is surrounded by the remnants of a once global industry: groups of hills entirely made up of discarded slate and littered with ruined buildings and defunct machinery, and traversed by tramways at impossibly steep angles. As I walked up one of these hills from the northern edge of the town into the Maenofferen quarry, the ruined landscape closed in, the encroaching mist above accentuating the enveloping quality of the slate hills (2). With Stalker so fresh in my mind, this landscape could not help but call to mind the Zone in that film and with that recollection, the hills became inscrutable, mysterious and distinctly threatening. Some parts of the quarry are still worked: yet on this April sabbath, all of the machines stood idle, as if abandoned by an alien civilisation forced to leave in a hurry (3).

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Further up the slate-made hills, the mist descended like a benign miasma. As any hill-walker knows too well, mist is a peculiarly discomforting phenomenon. On the one hand, it makes everything so still, soft and muffled; on the other, it hides what is close by, collapsing the world into a small sensory bubble. Here, just as in Stalker, the mist turned buildings into visual mysteries – half-shrouded entities that only made sense when close enough to make out their forms (4). Throughout my perambulation of this vast, unruly site, those mysteries seemed to deepen with every step, as if confirming the Zone’s profound illogic that the shortest way is never the most direct. So, only after a long detour around the edge of the Snowdonia National Park – navigating by fenceposts, half-glimpsed reservoirs and stream-beds – did I eventually return to the quarry from its northern side, finally entering the vast and monolithic buildings where the slate used to be unloaded and worked until the complex ceased production in 1999. In these buildings – unlike many former industrial sites – all of the machinery and many of the tools have remained, seemingly abandoned with haste after some unknown cataclysm forced the workers to flee.

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In these spaces, objects piled on objects, crowding in and demanding to be deciphered: three delicately-composed circular metal saw blades waiting to be catalogued (5); one gruesome hook longing for a kill (6); a lone rusting screw suggesting familial loss (7); one glove marking the position of a dead hand? (8) Of course, with some basic knowledge of the slate-working process, I would have made sense of these objects, but who could have really understood the final room – a vast barn-like space filled with absurd vehicles petrified in immobility? As the mist rolled in through the missing timber roof, these objects became extraordinary bearers of meaning trapped out-of-time: the green trolley ‘not allowed underground’ (9); the blue one with a single bright-red wheel hub (10); the strange sunken ‘eyes‘ of the yellow one (11); and the almost comedic shape of the rusty one (12). Yet, whilst photographing these vehicles, all of a sudden the mist vanished and the power of that mystery lifted. At once, these objects became more grounded and the alien monoliths outside the barn became what they really were: half-finished concrete pillars (4). Now, the Molewyn range of mountains appeared beyond and the real world opened up once again.

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Ghosts in the city: the ruined churches of Famagusta

18 04 2013
Remains of the Armenian church, Famagusta

Remains of the Armenian church, Famagusta

Famagusta (Gazimagusa) is a medieval walled city in north Cyprus that has changed hands many times in its long history: once a Crusader stronghold; then a Venetian fortified city, prized by Leonardo da Vinci; then, after an epic siege in 1571, an Ottoman outpost; then, from 1918 to 1960, a British colony; today, the southernmost city of Turkish-controlled north Cyprus, who seized control in 1974. From its immense walls – as impressive as any built by the Venetians – one sees the signs of Turkish militarisation everywhere: immense battleships in the industrial port; barracks sealed off by barbed wire; and, in the distance, the ghost city of Varosha, the modern formerly-Greek suburb that’s now a sealed-off forbidden zone.

It has been said that Famagusta once had 365 churches, each one paid for by a man or woman intent on buying their place in heaven. That’s one church for every day of the year – an extraordinary number perhaps explained by the large number of sects that used to coexist in the city: Latin and Greek, Maronite, Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Carmelite, Nestorian, Jacobite, Abyssinian and Jewish. From the meagre 17 churches that still remain today, it’s hard to imagine the overwhelming spectacle of such a large number of churches crammed together in such a small area; yet, in some way, the remainders – most in ruins – still testify to the ghostly presences of all those other churches that have been erased from the cityscape.

1. West front of St Nicholas Cathedral/Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque

1. West front of St Nicholas Cathedral/Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque

St Nicholas Cathedral (1, now the Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque) is still the architectural focus of the city, its imposing western facade, built in the 14th century likened to Reims Cathedral in France. Now, the former cathedral is a mosque, its incongruous minaret added by the Ottomans, the interior whitewashed, the altar supplanted by the minbar and mihrab, and the floor covered in soft carpets. Hearing the Azan emanating from this former church is both disorientating and strangely moving, jolting you into a place between the two hard-faced religions that still seem to face each other off in today’s divided Cyprus.

2. Interior of the Nestorian church through a crack in the door

2. Interior of the Nestorian church through a crack in the door

3. Faded frescoes, church of St George of the Greeks

3. Faded frescoes, church of St George of the Greeks

4. Weathered limestone, church of St George of the Greeks

4. Weathered limestone, church of St George of the Greeks

The other 16 churches are scattered inside the city walls, most of them in various stages of ruin; those that are not, firmly locked to curious visitors. Peering through a crack in the door of the 14th-century Nestorian Church (the most intact of the smaller churches), one sees an interior untouched by time, its pews, lectern and screen seemingly awaiting the next group of worshippers that may never come (2). In other more ruinous churches one can wander at will, the insides of these buildings now turned outwards: faded frescoes exposing the saints to the elements (3); homilies only offered by the pigeons who inhabit the vaults; the soft brown limestone eaten away into fantastical miniature worlds of coral-like formations (4).

5. Church of Ayios Nicholas

5. Church of Ayios Nicolas

6. Dome of the church of Ayios Nicolas

6. Dome of the church of Ayios Nicolas

At the southern end of the city are the two perfectly formed churches of Ayios Nicolas and Ayia Zoni: small, rustic buildings with their pleasing geometries of square, octagon and circle (5 & 6). Sitting here sketching on a windy afternoon, I was drawn, like many ruin gazers, into a reflective mode of perception. Unlike modern ruins, which sting us with their raw violence, old ruins comfort because they inhabit a different temporal realm from us. Long ago – a time which I can only imagine and not experience – these were churches; yet, they still remain as ghost churches, bearing witness in their materiality to distant traumas that remain in soft material traces. It’s as if they say to us: if you’re lucky, you might age as beautifully as we do. So, perhaps my own traumas, destructive as they are, will not end in my erasure but rather in my slow, but nevertheless inevitable, transfiguration into a silent witness.





Palaces of commerce: Manchester’s Victorian warehouses

14 11 2012

Warehouse (c.1865), 1 Central Street, Manchester

Manchester is a city known for its cotton mills, but it is its textile warehouses that remain the distinctive element in its street-scape and make it unlike any other city in England. From the mid-19th century onwards, the marketing of textiles came to dominate Manchester’s economy. For this reason it is the commercial warehouses, built by the manufacturers, wholesalers, independent merchants, traders and packing companies during the century after 1840, that are the most potent visual symbols of the city’s Victorian character.

Warehouse buildings of the 1820s and 1830s had little architectural pretension and they tended to follow Manchester’s mills in adopting a strictly utilitarian approach. As trade further accelerated and the city’s merchants became wealthier, the architectural style of warehouses changed, the merchants aspiring to premises of more impressive appearance to reflect, to potential customers, their growing stature. From the 1840s, they achieved this by adopting the Italian palazzo style, inspired by the 14th and 15th-century architecture of Florence, Genoa and Venice. The palazzo style was justified primarily on associational grounds: Renaissance street architecture in Italian cities were seen as developing in line with their expansion as centres of trade, just as Manchester was in the mid-19th century.

1. Edward Walters, warehouse (1855-56), 36 Charlotte St, Manchester

 

A typical surviving early example is Edward Walter’s warehouse fronting Portland and Charlotte Streets, built from 1855-56 (1). The windows here are indicative of the function of each floor of the warehouse – the large windows on the first floor light the main showroom, while the top-level windows are both smaller and more numerous as this is where the lightest and most delicate goods would have been stored and inspected. Each storey is boldly defined by a stone string-course, as are the lines of the window arches, and the parapets on the four corners of the roofline serve to emphasis the vertical dimension as well. The clear visual emphasis on ‘massiveness’ here is in keeping with the projection of an image of strength and solidity, but it also reflects wider principles in Victorian architecture at this time, which were dominated by the influence of John Ruskin and his writings on architecture.

2. Travis & Mangnall, Watt’s Warehouse (1851-56), elevation from Chorlton St

3. Cast-iron staircase in the interior of the Watt’s Warehouse (1851-56)

In the 1850s, some warehouse designers, such as Travis and Mangnall, who designed the Watt’s Warehouse in Portland Street (2), began to move away from the Palazzo Style. Now the Britannia Hotel, the Watt’s Warehouse was a vast building built for S. & J. Watts, the largest wholesale drapery business in Manchester. His enormous warehouse – 300-ft long and nearly 100-ft high – is more eclectic in its architectural style. The general outline resembles the Fondaco dei Turchi in Venice, but each of the six floors is given a different treatment, ranging from Italian Rennaissance to Elizabethan and culminating with wheel roundels in the roof towers. Inside, the warehouse had four large internal wells and a system of circulation which segregated customers, staff and porters. The original sumptuous cast-iron staircase is preserved (3), with its cantilevered bridges spanning the six floors, all made out of richly ornamented cast iron.

4. Dugdale’s Warehouse (1870s), Princess Street, Manchester

5. Corner view of Charles Clegg’s warehouse (1869) at 101 Princess Street, Manchester

From the 1860s until the turn of the century, Manchester’s warehouses proliferated in a wide variety of architectural styles, the best preserved now clustered along Princess Street. A high proportion of these warehouses were by the architects Clegg and Knowles, with Charles Clegg the leading designer, and all are roughly the same height of four or five stories with almost no gap between the frontage and the street. Of the many surviving examples, we have Dugdale’s warehouse from the late-1870s, in a loose Gothic style with an open arcaded parapets and tall chimneys (4); Charles Clegg’s 1869 warehouse at 101 Princess Street in an immaculate Renaissance style with brick with sandstone dressings (5); and 74 Princess St, built in 1880 in the Scottish baronial style by the architects Corson and Aitken (6).

6. Corson & Aitken’s warehouse (1880) at 74 Princess St, Manchester

Many of these Victorian warehouses have now been converted into flats, hotels or restaurants, their former use now difficult to detect from the outside. Yet, such is their number and sheer bulk that some inevitably remain in a kind of architectural limbo, either part-occupied or awaiting redevelopment. In an early warehouse by Edward Walters on Charlotte Street (1855), a group of tenants have only very recently redeveloped its interior. On my first visit in early 2012, amidst piles of rotting wood and the original cast-iron columns, were traces of the building’s last tenant – the textile retailer, Lilian Stewart Ltd, who, like many others in Manchester, gave up the business in the 1970s (7). With the company’s name still seen on one of the doors (8), the space suddenly became imbued by the still-living past, filled with unexpected possibilities and stories waiting to be told. However, on returning six months later, that space was already transformed into a whitewashed shell in preparation for its new life as a luxury apartment.

7. Interior of Edward Walter’s warehouse (c.1855) at 34 Charlotte Street, Manchester, in early 2012.

8. Interior of Edward Walter’s warehouse (c.1855) at 34 Charlotte St in early 2012.





Petrified ruin: exploring the abandoned city of Pripyat

27 09 2010

Entering Pripyat

Pripyat was built in 1970 to house workers at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear plant. It’s now an empty city, abandoned in 1986 after the worst nuclear accident in history. Recently, Chernobyl and Pripyat have become unlikely tourist destinations and my visit in October 2007 was arranged through a travel agency in Kiev. Visiting Pripyat is a disconcerting experience: because it is the largest post-War ruin in existence, the empty streets and buildings feel like a real-life version of countless ruined cities in post-apocalyptic cinema.

If one is a lover of industrial ruins, as I am, walking through the empty, decaying buildings of Pripyat might seem to represent an opportunity for extreme pleasure – a place, in the words of Tim Edensor, ‘which offers spaces in which the interpretation and practice of the city becomes liberated from the everyday constraints which determine what should be done and where, and which encode the city with meanings’. So, for example we have surprise in the arbitrary arrangements of once ordered things – broken strip lights in a supermarket (1):

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…or the sudden reappearance of utopian objects from the past – socialist icons left in a room in the palace of culture (2):

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…or the excess of meaning generated by inexplicable objects and juxtapositions – rusted hat stands alone in a decaying room (3):

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For Edensor and others, such experiences are potentially transformative, ‘suggesting new forms of thought and comprehension, and … new conceptions of space that confirm the potential of the human to integrate itself, to be whole and free outside of any predetermined system’. Yet, such positive assessments of industrial ruins tend to present them as alternative spaces within the ordered, modern city. It is one thing encountering an industrial ruin in the midst of the ceaseless life of the city; it is quite another if all is ruin, if there is no counterbalancing order at all.

As one proceeds through Pripyat, the sense of ruin quickly becomes overwhelming: the very qualities of fragmentation, plenitude, discontinuity and defamiliarisation that Edensor celebrates, soon overwhelm. Scale overrides the positive attributes of these qualities: the strange beauty of peeling walls in corridors soon become only reminders of the vastness of all that is not seen; the decay of the conventional architectural signs of civilisation – hospitals, schools, supermarkets, hotels – a wearisome succession of incommensurable losses (4):

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And the decay seen is not what it seems: not a product of the return of natural processes of decomposition, but from two decades of systematic looting; a consequence of the residents being forced to leave all their belongings behind when the town was evacuated. Finally, juxtapositions of objects become unbearably poignant – children’s toys left on the decaying remains of a merry-go-round (5):

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…or simply sinister – a rusty gynaecological chair and gas mask in the grounds of the hospital (6):

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Indeed, for the ‘voices of Chernobyl’ – those who experienced the accident and its aftermath at first hand – the site represents something much more than a technological ruin: for one witness ‘Chernobyl was a way into infinity…it shattered existing boundaries’; for another ‘the World no longer seemed eternal as it had done before … we had been deprived of immortality’. For many Chernobyl represented the end of communism, even if its final collapse was delayed until 1991. Before Chernobyl they were protected by the Soviet state apparatus; after it, they were forced to become individuals again, left alone in their own private zones. The sense of Chernobyl as both technological and cosmic catastrophe is embodied in the experience of the spaces of Pripyat and more specifically, in the ‘city-like’ quality of it. With its endless blank corridors, disorientating repetition, and the evidence of violent human agency at work in its spaces, Pripyat is more ruined city than collection of industrial ruins, inviting meditation on loss on a cosmic scale.

Read more about my research on Chernobyl and Pripyat here

See more of my photographs of Chernobyl and Pripyat here





Dead Cities

12 10 2009
Serjilla, 2008, oil pastel on chalk & ink

Serjilla, 2008, oil pastel on chalk & ink

In the Syrian countryside south of Aleppo lie the Dead Cities, a series of ancient ghost towns between the Aleppo-Hama highway in the east and the Orontes River in the west. Dating from before the 5th century, these sites – around 600 in total – range from single monuments to whole villages, as in the case of Serjilla, which is complete with houses, churches, mills, baths and even a wine press. It is a mystery why the towns were abandoned in the late-5th century but some now form part of present-day villages, with a few people even inhabiting the ancient ruins or incorporating them into their own houses.

Serjilla is the most complete site and has en eerie quality because of its extraordinary state of preservation; walking through the site it seems as if the inhabitants have only recently departed. Whole houses are preserved with clean and sharp-edged stone walls, columns and windows. All around are the scattered fragments of early Christian iconography – fishes, crosses, wheels, stars, and spirals – set against the rusty-coloured soil and close-cropped grass.

Serjilla, Syria, September 2008

Serjilla, Syria, September 2008








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