(Old Syriac, Rasappa; in Ptolemy, Rēsapha; Lat., Rosapha, Risapha; since the sixth century CE also Sergiopolis; Ar., Ruṣāfat Hishām),

site located 180 km (112 mi.) east of Aleppo, Syria, and 35 km (22 mi.) south of the Euphrates River. Excavations were conducted by the German Archaeological Institute from 1952 to 1965 under the direction of Johannes Kollwitz and since 1975 of Tilo Ulbert.

To date, no traces of a pre-Roman settlement have been found. The most recent excavations have recovered evidence for the presence of the Roman army beginning in the first century CE (see below). In about 300 CE the Christian officer Sergius suffered a martyr's death in the Diocletianic limes fort of Rusafa (Vita Ss. Sergii et Bacchi, Acta Martyrum, Analecta Boll. 14, 1895, 373ff.). The fort later grew into a city that prospered as a result of the number of pilgrims visiting the grave of St. Sergius. It became in the fifth century the seat of a bishop and later of a metropolitan. In the Byzantine period (sixth century), the city was fortified (Procopius, de Aedificiis 2.9.3–8). From 724 to 745 it was the residence of the Umayyad caliph Hisham and was a Christian/Islamic city until the Mongol invasion of Syria In 1259–1260. The site has been uninhabited since.

In the sixth century the fortification walls were expanded to enclose a rectangular city area of 21 ha (62 acres). Their four monumental main gates and fifty towers have been largely preserved. Vaulted cisterns in the southwest area of the city also belong to this period. In 1986, in the course of investigating the ancient city's water supply system, it was possible to determine that there had been a dam outside the walls that collected the water from winter and spring rains and directed it into the city. Through a complicated canal system, the water flowed into four giant cisterns, whose annual levels would have sufficed for about six thousand inhabitants for one year, based on an assumed use of 10 l per person. In addition, each residential unit possessed its own cistern for collecting rainwater. Deep shafts, from which the saline groundwater could be drawn for watering livestock and gardens, were also distributed throughout the city.

The investigation of a residential quarter in the vicinity of the cisterns showed a continuity of settlement in the same stone houses from the sixth to the thirteenth century CE. The most recent excavations also permit a better understanding of the system of streets and open squares in the city. The sixth-century public buildings, such as the forum, baths, and pilgrim lodgings, have not yet been excavated. It is the ruins of the city's large churches that have determined Rusafa's appearance and that were the object of past investigations. [See Churches.] The oldest preserved church (Basilica B) was erected in the early sixth century on the site of an earlier structure. [See Basilicas.] The most recent excavations have produced finds from the first century CE from under its floor (the evidence of the first phase of Roman occupation on the Syrian limes). The so-called Central Building also dates to the sixth century; this is a church that manifests both a basilican and a centralizing architectural schema. Basilica A, the bishop's church probably originally dedicated to the Holy Cross, also housed the relics of the city's patron, St. Sergius, from the Early Byzantine period until the city's demise in the thirteenth century. In antiquity, this basilica, with its wide arcade (54.40 m long, 28.60 m wide, and preserved to a height of 18 m), suffered repeated earthquake damage; however, in contrast to the two other large Christian buildings at the site, it was always repaired. Both a baptistery and a residential building for the metropolitan were annexed to the basilica. [See Baptisteries.] A spacious peristyle courtyard in the northern part of the church was probably reserved for pilgrims. The grave itself was housed in the especially artfully outfitted subsidiary room in the north, next to the basilica's apse.

The large three-nave mosque of Hisham built in the pilgrim courtyard in the early eighth century is evidence of the probably peaceful coexistence of the Christian and Islamic communities at Rusafa at the start of the Umayyad period. [See Mosque.] During this period, a suq (“market”) was established to the west of the mosque and the church. To judge from the finds, it was still functioning into the thirteenth century. The few rooms excavated so far have given valuable indications about the types of crafts produced (metal handicrafts, dye-works). In 1982 a hoard of five gilded silver vessels decorated in niello was discovered concealed in a pottery vessel in the pilgrim courtyard. This unique treasure was restored in the Rheinisches Landes-museum in Bonn, Germany, and is now on display in the National Museum in Damascus. It consists of votive offerings to the grave of Sergius that were hidden shortly before the Mongolian invasion. All of the pieces date to the twelfth-thirteenth centuries; some were made in Syria, partially following western models. At least two of the other vessels came from western workshops and has reached the Near East in conjunction with the Crusades. Especially interesting is the drinking vessel that belonged to Raoul I of Couzy, a French noble, who took part in the Third Crusade and fell in the Battle of Akko In 1193. His own coat of arms and that of his family are engraved on the cup.

Inside the city, the fourth of the large basilicas (the so-called Basilica C, a columned basilica from the fifth-sixth centuries with a surrounding step podium) has also been investigated, as has a khan (a caravanserai within the walls). Research into the extensive construction outside the city walls has begun. This includes a fortified Late Antique suburban villa, occupied until the Umayyad period, and the so-called al-Mundir building, probably a reception hall of the sixth-century Ghassanid ruler of the same name. In an area south of Rusafa, the remains of large buildings constructed from mud bricks can still be recognized. One was excavated by Katarina Otto-Dorn during the first Rusafa campaign In 1952 and published as the Palace of Hisham. The most recent excavations have revealed a garden pavilion, richly decorated with stucco, that is also dated to the Umayyad period. It belonged to another very extensive palace area.


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Tilo Ulbert

Translated from German by Susan I. Schiedel