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A modest village living from the cultivation of cherries and olives, lies forgotten at the bottom of a valley in the province of Idlib.

The brightly-dressed women of the place can be seen fetching water from fountains, in copper or tin cans which they carry on their heads. Schoolchildren walk about the little country roads, learning their lessons as they go. Small boys lead the family’s donkey back from the orchades. But it is not for its bucolic charm that Al Bara deserves a place on the visitor’s itinerary. Indeed very few visitors do come up here. So few in fact that they are received as honoured guests by the notables of the village, who hasten to offer them tea and to guide them around the ruins of "the largest ghost town in Northern Syria".

The village nestles half-way up the slope overlooking a wide valley. The whole of the valley floor and the slope opposite are covered with the remains of a vast number of houses which can be seen between the olive trees. The ruins, though indeed at first sight they seem too large to be ruinous, spread over at least three kilometers.

The landscape seems tinged with a faint sadness. The silence of the grave seems to hover over the depopulated valley. The village urchins usually so full of the life when visitors appear, are few and limited. The dark-brown, almost black soil is scattered with dull grey rocky outcrops. Pieces of broken building stone every where mutely proclaim the life that has departed….

For Al Bara was once an important town, known from the 2nd century BC and still active after the Frankish invasions. The Crusaders took the place in 1098 and were driven out of it twenty-five years later. Muslim tombs, small mosques and inscriptions in Arabic, indicate that rural and even intellectual life continued here for several countries more. The town was evidently abandoned gradually, as the arable soil was gradually eroded and washed away down the valley - a process that is still going on. (The same thing happened more dramatically elsewhere).

A detailed visit takes several hours and is quite a tiring business, due to the terrain the vegetation invading everything, and the number of low dividing walls that have to be clambered over. Yet since there are no really imposing and important buildings it is not easy to restrict oneself to just one sector. The young men of the village willingly act as guides; their help is most useful.

There are three types of buildings to be seen at Al Bara.

The dwellings in many cases still have their double-storied facade. Some have porticoes in front of them. Over the doors there are great stones, set at an angel, which act as porches. The house that is furthest away the west is also the best preserved, not having been used as a quarry for other building. It is known as Deir Sobat, "the convent", despite being merely a farm and dependent buildings. In some of the houses there are still olive and wine-presses in the cellars. One of these has a Latin inscription on it, just over the hole through which the wine used to flow down into the basement, in which Bacchus is mentioned (although the building dates from the Christian era) "This nectar that you see - gift of Bacchus - is the fruit of the vine, fed by the warm sunshine".

The three main churches are laid out on a basilican plan, with three aisles. Their fallen roofs and the luxuriant vegetation that clings to them make it difficult to study them in detail. Their decoration is extremely sober - merely a few acanthus leaves, sometimes stylized, and the occasional chrisma on the some of the lintels. There are no delicate carved borders - as at Sty. Simon for example to soften the transition from the round arches to the rough grey walls.

The monumental tombs are the most surprising building at Al Bara - both by their size (they are sometimes very large) and by their unusual designs. Square bases made of large blocks of stones are (or were) surmounted by pyramidal stone roofs.

The outside walls of the most important tomb are encircled by mouldings and cornices which certainly help to lighten its otherwise massive structure. These features, as well as the doorway, are decorated with vine-branches, ivy and scroll patterns. The central chamber is littered with blocks of stone from the collapsed roof; at leas they make it possible to climb up to the higher cornice and enjoy a view of the whole Al Bara.

Not far away there is a more modest tomb whose pyramidal roof has remained intact. Here every stone projects like a little console: whether this was intended to be useful, symbolic or merely decorative, remains a mystery.

Crosses and chrisms make it possible to date these funerary monuments as 5th and 6th century.

From here it is easy to get back to the present-day village, via an Arab castle, Qalaat Abou Sofian. This fort predates the Crusades and is said to be one of the oldest in Syria - a proof that these forts existed before the Frankish castle. The ramparts afford a fine view of the ruined town.

Forgotten villages and around

Al Bara is by no means unique. The entire mountain between the valley of Al Bara and the Aleppo-Hama highway, to the east, is covered with Roman and Christian ruins. Unfortunately it is really only possible to explore this arid and desolate region on foot, on horseback, or by Jeep, and with a local inhabitant as a guide.

Neighbouring sites

It is fairly easy however, to reach the site of Al Moghara, which lies about an hour’s walk by a good path, from Meriane - the last village we passed through on our way up to Al Bara. Apart from other ruins there are some astonishing hypogeum tombs to be seen there, with porticoes in front of them.

Another interesting possibility is to make for Maarat en Noman a small town on the Aleppo-Hama road, across the mountain. There are two ways of getting there.

The route to the north follows the track to Delloza, a village surrounded by Byzantine ruins, and Serjilla, an ancient town strung out along a ledge above the central plateau, where the shepherds make temporary use of the ruins for shelter. The beautiful architecture found in several churches, palaces, pressing houses and privates residence makes it worthwhile visiting. Indeed, the variety of the decorative motifs alone would justify the trip.

Two kilometers to the south-west lies Rebeia, where there is a baptistery and a pyramidal mausoleum. The second route is easier to follow and the track soon becomes a road again. It leads first to Hass (basilica and pyramidal tomb) and, an hour’s walk further on’ to Khirbet Hass (six churches, a hypogeum tomb with a portico) and then Kfar Rûma (ancient bridge). Maarat in Noman itself worth a visit, mainly for its Islamic monuments.

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