Once upon a time, there was a city called Antioch, founded by Seleucus, one of Alexander The Great's generals. Actually, he had quite a thing for that name (his son was called Antiochus), and he founded 16 Antiochs, but it was the one near modern-day Aleppo that flourished and became the third greatest city of the Eastern Roman Empire. Around this great city there grew up an extensive network of towns and villages that depended on the trade flowing in and out of Antioch, inhabited by wealthy peasants and merchants and adorned with all the glory of Byzantine architecture and culture. They grew olives and wine in carefully cultivated terraced plots and exported these products to the rest of the Empire. The cities weren't planned as such; instead, they appear to have grown organically as a result of gradual settlement and increasing wealth in the area. In a similar manner, they were abandoned as Antioch declined. In the 7th century AD large swathes of Byzantium were conquered by the growing Islamic Empire, and Damascus rather than Antioch became the political and administrative centre of the region. It appears that as trade faded and money dried up, the inhabitants of these towns surrounded by rocky, difficult soil simply walked away, in many cases taking their ancestors with them from the tombs and crypts. As the terraces were abandoned, the hills lost their topsoil to erosion and the land became, to all practical purposes, uninhabitable.

For centuries the Dead Cities remained untouched, an eerie and almost perfect memorial of the culture they represented. Empty basilicas, churches, monasteries, public baths and houses stood where they had been left on the hillsides and by the rivers, and the region escaped the rapine and destruction of conquest that has robbed archaeologists of so many chances to study ancient buildings in their original state. Covering an elevated limestone area in Northern Syria of about 140km in length and 30km in width, the dead cities have been a kind of living museum, accessible to both tourists and archaeologists, but not actively preserved or restored except for some rare instances.

Now, something terrible or wonderful is happening, depending on your perspective: humans are moving back into the Dead Cities. Syria's population is booming, and houses that have stood as Byzantine relics for more than a thousand years are being turned into homes for farmers and their families. They are taking the ancient stones and building houses with them; they are moving into the baths and monasteries and roofing them and covering the windows with plastic. They are using Byzantine cisterns for water and underground burial chambers to store grain. Towns that have been dead for a millennium are showing signs of life, and ghostly walls are finding a use once more.

Of course, not everyone is happy about this. Archaeologists are up in arms, fearing the loss of an irreplaceable treasure trove of pristine Byzantine architecture and history. The peasants are building their homes in a museum and the curators are incensed. The Syrian government tries, halfheartedly, to prevent them, razing houses that are built too close to certain listed antiquities (such as St. Simeon's Pillar, where St. Simeon sat for 42 years practicing austerities in true Byzantine fashion), and imposing fines for the destruction of others. This limited policy has made them unpopular on both sides: with the farmers, because they see no benefit in demolishing the dwellings of the living in order to preserve those of the dead; and with the archaeologists, because in their opinion the measures do not go far enough, and are allowing the gradual encroachment by the living on more and more of the priceless ruins.

The government claims to be hampered on moral grounds. Magistrates are reluctant to find against impoverished farmers who seek shelter in the ruins while scraping out a living in the harsh hillside soil, and there is a lack of political will to punish the living for seizing the territory and possessions of the dead; it seems that there is a kind of natural law at work. Why should living people be disadvantaged in order to preserve the remains of a culture long gone? However, this question has been answered satisfactorily in many other countries. In Egypt, the robbery of graves was stopped and the country now prospers on the tourist revenue generated by preserving the remnants of those who owned their land long ago. In the United Kingdom, organizations such as The National Trust preserve and make available to tourists the castles and gardens and scenic areas of all of England's history that could be retained. The scheme is not without its opponents — some people feel that history is history for a reason, and that the natural evolution and discarding of the old forms of the past should not be artificially halted at arbitrary points — but in general, it demonstrates successfully that demographic and financial pressure do not have to lead to the destruction of history if there is the political will and organization to prevent it.

In the meantime, the dead cities creep back into life, and the occupants of the ruins and the new houses amongst them are very friendly to visitors. They don't object to the archaeologists or the tourists — why should they, as long as no one objects to them? They will happily show people around the petrified memories covering the hills of their home — perhaps a little more happily if they are paid, but that seems like a fair trade. In the end, the general opinion of archaeologists is that, sadly, you cannot stand in the way of demographic change, and eventually the dead cities will cease to be. Nothing lasts forever, which is why these once-prosperous towns lay empty and untouched for so long, and is also why they will again one day be full of people. It's difficult to argue that we should try to stop time at any particular point in the interests of preserving "history" — how should we choose the point at which we should stop? Should the process continue until the entire world is a mausoleum of untouchable buildings from every time period, while all the living beings live on orbital space stations or other worlds? Different cultures and nations find different answers to this question. The Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in the face of the world's outrage, but does their answer to the preservation or destruction of history really have any less logic? They just accelerated the natural forces of erosion that would have destroyed the Buddhas anyway. The world does not preserve. Why, then, should we? It may seem trivial to wonder about whether or not a few Syrian peasants should be allowed to occupy a few Byzantine ruins, and perhaps it is, but the question goes to the heart of ecology. Do we allow natural processes to take their course, or do we impose our ideas of what should be preserved and what should be allowed to fade away? Most of our ideas of the miraculous revolve around dead things coming back to life or things changing form, and perhaps in this sense we should be more concerned with preserving life's ability to recycle dead forms, than we are with preserving the dead forms themselves.


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