Resafa or Sergiopolis: ancient town in eastern Syria, important Christian pilgrim town, fortified by the Byzantine emperor Justinian (r.527-565). It is in the desert about thirty kilometers west of Raqqa and thirty-five kilometers south of the river Euphrates.
Raşappa, the town that would one day be called Resafa, is mentioned in Assyrian texts from the ninth century BCE. The Bible refers to Rezeph as one of the towns that the Assyrians destroyed in spite of the fact that the inhabitants had put their trust in their gods.note[2 Kings 19.12 || Isaiah 37.12.] Nothing of this Iron Age town has been found.
What seems certain, though, is that Resafa was occupied by the Roman army in the second half of the first century BCE and that it was used by dromedary riders in the third century CE. At that moment, the main Roman line of defense (the limes) was along the river Euphrates. The attacks by the Sasanian Persians (and other enemies along the Danube and Rhine), however, forced Rome to reconsider its frontier policy. Everywhere, the Romans built stronger fortifications.
In eastern Syria, this project was called the Strata Diocletiana: a defended road from Sura on the Euphrates in the north to Resafa, the Diocletianic Camp in Palmyra, Thelsae, and Damascus to Bosra in the south. While this project was executed during the reign of Diocletian (r.284-305), a Christian officer named Sergius refused to sacrifice to the emperor’s personal god, Jupiter, and was beheaded in Resafa.
Sergius' grave attracted pilgrims and by the end of the fourth century, a martyrion was built, a shrine for the martyred officer. The increasing number of visitors raised the status of Resafa, which was recognized as a bishopric in 454. That not all visitors were pilgrims, is shown by the khan, the trade center in the center of the town.
The Byzantine emperor Anastasius (r.491-518) expanded the martyr’s shrine. Archaeologists call the new monument "Basilica B". With the support of the emperors, the cult of the officer’s saint spread to the imperial centers: Constantinople had a church of SS.Sergius and Bacchus, while other churches were built in Ravenna and Rome. Resafa itself was renamed Sergiopolis, “town of Saint Sergius”.
A bit later, the emperor Justinian (r.527-565) built new fortifications for the city. The military reason must have been the defense of the Strata Diocletiana, but Justinian’s contemporary Procopius mentions another motive: protection of ecclesiastical properties.
There is a certain church in Euphratesia, dedicated to Sergius, a famous saint, whom men of former times used to worship and revere, so that they named the place Sergiopolis, and they had surrounded it with a very humble wall, just sufficient to prevent the Saracens of the region from capturing it by storm. For the Saracens are naturally incapable of storming a wall, and the weakest kind of barricade, put together with perhaps nothing but mud, is sufficient to check their assault.
At a later time, however, this church, through its acquisition of treasures, came to be powerful and celebrated. And the Emperor Justinian, upon considering this situation, at once gave it careful attention, and he surrounded the church with a most remarkable wall, and he stored up a great quantity of water and thus provided the inhabitants with a bountiful supply. Furthermore, he added to the place houses and stoas and the other buildings which are wont to be the adornments of a city.
Besides this he established there a garrison of soldiers who, in case of need, defended the circuit-wall. Khusrau, indeed, the King of the Persians, made a great effort to capture the city, sending a great army to besiege it; but because of the strength of the defenses he accomplished nothing and abandoned the investment.note[Procopius, Buildings 2.9.3-9; tr. Henry Bronson Dewing. The Persian king was Khusrau I “deathless soul”, who reigned from 531 to 579.]
This description is fairly accurate. The “remarkable wall”, which has twenty-one towers and four gates, is fifteen meters high and three meters wide and surrounds an irregular rectangular area. The northern wall is 536 meters long, the western wall 411 meters, the southern 549 meters, and the eastern wall 350 meters.
The stoas mentioned by Procopius must have been along the main roads. One of these ran from the eastern to the western gate. The other one was 4.6 meters wide, with two two meter wide sidewalks, and led from the cistern in the southwest (for “a great quantity of water”) past the khan to the splendidly decorated northern gate. This northern gate was quite tall and offered shadow to a small square, where merchants must have exchanged their products.
Towards the end of the reign of Justinian, the splendid building that is known as “Basilica A” was built. A mosaic with a text tells us:
Abramius, by the grace of God bishop of Sergiopolis, built this to venerate the Holy Cross … in the month of Artemisius in the seventh indiction, in the year 870.
This date is according to the Seleucid Era, which starts in 312/311 BCE. The year is, therefore, 559/560 CE. The interesting aspect is that Basilica A was dedicated to the True Cross, while we know that its main monument was the sarcophagus of Saint Sergius, which had been brought here from Basilica B. There were some problems with the foundations of this church, which led to repairs in the 580s.
Demise and Recovery
The fort itself was, in these days, occupied by the Ghassanids, a group of Arabs that told that they had migrated from Yemen to the Roman Empire. It is impossible to check the veracity of this story (which is told about almost every group of Arabs), but it is certain that in the late fifth century, the Ghassanids were a Roman client state in eastern Syria: a kind of buffer state between the Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian Empire.
Justinian had recognized one of their leaders, Al-Harith, as king (r.529-569); his son Al-Mundhir succeeded him in 569 and one wonders if Basilica A was built to celebrate his inauguration. Because the emperor Maurice (r.582-602) did not want a Monophysite Christian as commander of an important section of the eastern frontier, he exiled Al-Mundhir to Sicily. The HQs of the Ghassanid army have been identified just north of the fortress.
The disappearance of Ghassanid leadership made Rome’s eastern border vulnerable. When, in 602, war broke out between the Sasanian king Khusrau II and the Byzantine usurper Phocas, Syria was indeed attacked. Several buildings in Sergiopolis appear to have been built in these years, like the cistern, which must have replaced Justinian’s water storage.
In spite of these preparations for war, Sergiopolis was captured by the Pesians in 616. Several years later, Byzantine fortunes were restored by the emperor Heraclius. Sergiopolis received a splendid cathedral.
The great war between the Byzantines and Sasanids lasted until 628. The two states were exhausted and an easy target for the Arabs, who captured Sergiopolis in 636. They built their mosque immediately north of Basilica A.
The city flourished. Umayyad caliph Hisham (r.724-743) built a palace in Resafa, but the tiles have eroded and there is little left. The town itself continued to receive Christian pilgrims until the thirteenth century, when caliph Baibars (r.1260-1277) resettled the population to Hama.