The Northern Levant at the End of Antiquity

I was pretty excited to read Jesse Casana’s very recent article on the Late Roman landscape of the Northern Levant in the most recent Oxford Journal of Archaeology. I’ve been poking, in a tentative way, around this region lately (via articles and books, mind you) in an effort to situate Cyprus more clearly in its regional context. Casana’s article was particularly insightful because he relied heavily on evidence from survey archaeology.

He drew upon a number of recent survey projects (Ghab Regional Survey and the Amuq Valley Regional Project) to demonstrate that the lower Orontes Valley in the immediate neighborhood of Antioch was densely settled throughout the 5th and 6th centuries. The settlements on these fertile valley bottoms have largely been overlooked by scholars of the Late Roman period distracted, it would seem, by the dramatic remains of the “Dead Cities” of the limestone massif some 20 km to the west. The Dead Cities are remarkably well-preserved largely because the relatively arid landscape of the limestone massif was not reoccupied in later periods leaving the substantial limestone structures standing until today.  Moreover, scholars working in the Orontes Valley tended to study  the prominent tell sites which primarily date to the Bronze Age and Iron Age and overlooked the scattered tiles and ceramics that provide evidence for Roman and Late Roman occupation of these regions.

The evidence for Late Roman occupation in this region was substantial and, as Casana documented in a small-scale excavation, included elaborate buildings whose walls were either robbed for building material in later times or were made of mud brick. Casana argues that these apparently affluent settlements developed in response to markets in Antioch, Apamea, and accessed by sea from the coast of the North Levant. The Dead Cities, occupying more marginal land, are part of this same process of producing for booming urban markets and dynamic regional trade.  

Casana’s understanding of the boom in the Orontes Valley coincides with my reading of settlement on Cyprus. The Late Roman period in the East – perhaps into the 7th century on Cyprus – represented a period of urban prosperity, a high degree of monetization, and thriving regional markets in the Eastern Mediterranean stimulated at least, in part, through imperial policy and the needs of the army on the frontiers and the capital at Constantinople. The opportunities of the market stimulated the exploitation of marginal lands and this coincided with a gradual diversification of agricultural production from strictly subsistence practices to limited, opportunistic production for market. As Michael Decker has argued for the same region marginal lands sometimes become opportunities for niche production and the traditional reading of the Dead Cities on the limestone massif suggested that these villages produced olive oil primarily for export (although more recent work has shown that the villages may have also produced wine and grain perhaps for local consumption). 

As a conclusion, Casana frames the issues involving the structure of settlement in the Northern Levant as primarily archaeological in character. In other words, the remarkable preservation of the Dead Cities of the limestone massif has led scholars to overlook and mischaracterize contemporary settlement on the more fertile lands of the Orontes valley. This, as one can imagine, distorted the reading of settlement in this region and overlooked the massive expansion of settlement present in the region. The work of the two surveys summarized by Casana brings the Northern Levant in line with contemporary settlement patterns in the so-called “busy countryside” of Late Roman Cyprus. Like the Northern Levant, the booming urbanism of Late Roman Cyprus and access to the substantial and monetized Eastern Mediterranean economic world supported the expansion of settlement across the island. When the cohesive Eastern Mediterranean market faltered in the face of invasions and plagues in the later 7th century (on Cyprus and perhaps in the Levant as well), urban areas declined and regional markets returned to levels prior to the momentary stimulus provided by the state and an exception period of economic and political integration.     

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