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.