Prospection in the urban area of Shayzar/Larissa on the Orontes River
The town of Shayzar is located upon a c. 120-m high step in the topography, at which the gentle hilly countryside around Hama changes to the lowland of the Ghab. There the Orontes River has cut a deep valley through the rocky cliffs, forming a rocky spur projecting from the hinterland, an ideal location of the acropolis of a city. Naturally protected on three sides, the fortress was defended to the south by an imposing ditch, made by the hand of man. The Islamic castle Qala'at Shayzar upon the rocky spur has been preserved to this day. An Italian-Syrian team carried out investigations on its architectural history and conservation measures (www.progetto-shayzar.it).
From this point to the west the Orontes River flows through the lowland of the Ghab, scarcely losing any altitude until its end, 120 km downstream. Regulated today, the lowland once must have provided for an exceedingly abundant and singular fauna. Historical sources report of hunts for elephants and lions. Furthermore, the higher-lying alluvial fans offer fertile land that is easy to irrigate.
The settlement hill located at the foot of the castle of Shayzar is 24 ha in area and rises about 12 m above the surrounding valley. With its imposing dimensions, it is expressive testimony to the excellent strategic location of the city, which held control not only over the valley, but also the single crossing over the Orontes River on the important overland route from the metropolis of Apamea via Hama to the east and south.
Around 1350 BC the King of Qatna in central Syria wrote a desperate letter to Pharaoh Amenophis III, entreating him to send troops to the pro-Egyptian coalition as support against the mighty Hittites who were approaching Syria from the north. One of the steadfast kingdoms in this coalition was Zinzar, later known as Shayzar/Larissa. Historical reports about the famed struggle between the great powers Egypt and the Hittites for control over Syria provide the background for the earliest information about this site. They are the first in a long series of evidential texts that repeatedly headline historical events and life in this city. In the Late Bronze Age and early Iron Age we learn of the priests of Ishtar, whose cult could have later blended with that of the goddess Artemis, who was revered at this site. The Greeks inhabited this place, when Seleucos I settled the veterans of an experienced cavalry from the army of Alexander the Great there around 300 BC. The name of the Greek foundation, 'Larissa', is thus explained by the arrival of these soldiers from the synonymous town Larissa in Thessaly. When Diodotos Tryphon seized power over the Seleucid Empire in 145 BC, Larissa sided with him. Later it fought against the powerful neighbouring city Apamea and at the end of the increasingly waning Seleucid Empire the city struck its own coins. In 63 BC Larissa, as in all of Syria, came into the possession of the Romans. It became involved in the conflicts between Rome and the Persians in 253 AD, and twenty years later it witnessed the final battles between Aurelian and Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. Larissa became a bishopric in Late Antiquity and propagated scholars in jurisprudence and philosophers. On the eve of Islam the Arabian poet Imru al-Qais spent pleasant times there among a presumably large Arab population. The indigenous name, possibly of Hurrian origin, asserted itself once again in the designation 'Sezer' in Byzantine or 'Shayzar' in Arabic sources. After a changeable history in the conflict of interests between Byzantium and the Islamic rulers, in 1081 Shayzar came into the possession of the royal family Munqidh, who defended unwaveringly the fortress against rival powers and the Crusaders. The autobiography of Prince Usama b. Munqidh is an impressive account of the city's flourish during the 12th century, its culture and its daily life. After the severe earthquake in 1157 and in 1170, first during Ayyubid and then Mamluk rule, Shayzar is last mentioned in a source from c. 1450 as the "very beautiful city, with a strong fortress and large land".
The aim of the present project is to record the state of monuments in the lower city and to make an initial draft of the city's development, basing upon what can be determined from archaeological contexts. These steps are important prerequisites for investigations along more specific and extensive lines of enquiry, such as the question as to the relationship between the indigenous predecessor settlement and the Greek founding.
In order to record the monuments at the site, archaeological prospection was first conducted in the part of the settlement that has not been built over by modern structures. After setting a grid for measuring, architectural remains in the city will be recorded and plotted. This also applies to those architectural elements built into modern structures as well as sections of walls that are still visible on the surface. Then a thorough register of pottery found on the surface will be made. Aside from their date, pottery sherds can provide a wealth of further information about the context, in which they lie or were found. For this reason all of the surface pottery found will be examined, for example, also in view of its breakage and dislodgment. As the data attained here represent a new line of investigation, the results should be evaluated according to a model. Further, initial geophysical investigations have been carried out, which provide a destruction-free view of the city concealed under ground. In addition to the conventional documentation, later all data will be stored in an archaeological information system, which will assist in further plans.
During the first survey 2007 a preliminary archaeological map of the settlement was drafted. The spoliae derive foremost from the 1st to 6th centuries AD. Of note is one capital with a Greek inscription, in which the Christian god is invoked. The many observations made at the site as well as the geophysical mesurements already allow a preliminary sketch of the settlement's developement. At its founding the Hellenistic city not only followed upon the ancient Oriental settlement, but then expanded farther into the plain. Geophysical measurements show that the foundation included a street plan on a grid at right angles. After decline in size, the settlement - now in a far smaller surface area - was enclosed by a wall during its flourish in the 12th century. In the early 19th century the settlement was withdrawn entirely into the citadel.
Presumably this picture will be differentiated and accentuated even more by final evaluation of pottery.
Direction Générale des Antiquités et des Musées de la Syrie (DGAMS)
Dipl.-Ing. C. Rüdiger, Master's program "Denkmalpflege und Stadtentwicklung" of the Technical University in Dresden (topographical survey and GIS for mapping architectural and archaeological remains) (http://tu- dresden.de/die_tu_dresden/fakultaeten/fakultaet_architektur/ibad/master/copy_of_index_htm
Dr. Sirri Seren, Zentralanstalt für Meteorologie und Geodynamik, Wien (geophysics)
Dr. Karin Bartl, DAI
Dr. phil. Matthias Grawehr
Universität Basel, Archäologisches Seminar
CH - 4056 Basel
Abdelqader Ferzat, DGAMS
M. Grawehr, J. Ramadan, M. Hijazi, Syrisch-deutsche Arbeiten in Shayzar/Larissa. Erster Vorbericht, Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 2 (2009), 208-232.