Apamea in Syria

The archaeological site of Apamea is located on the eastern edge of the Orontes plain, between the al-Saheliyeh mountains and the Limestone Massif. The ancient settlement grew around an imposing tell that overlooks the Ghab depression by about a hundred metres. The tell served as an acropolis in the Hellenistic period and was transformed into a citadel (Qal‘at al-Mudiq) in the medieval period. Identified as the ancient city of Apamea since the middle of the 19th century, the site saw its first archaeological exploration in 1928, at the initiative of Franz Cumont, who convinced Belgium to conduct regular missions there, under the direction of Fernand Mayence and Henri Lacoste. Seven campaigns took place before the Second World War, followed by two short seasons in 1947 and 1953. From 1965, at the request of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums of Syria, Belgium resumed its archaeological campaigns and set up the Belgian Centre for Archaeological Research at Apamea in Syria, hosted by the Académie royale de Belgique and now called "Belgian Archaeological Mission at Apamea in Syria". Jean Charles Balty was in charge of the excavations for many years until Didier Viviers succeeded him in 2001. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, field research has been suspended.

Fig. 1: map of Syria

Occupied since the Middle Paleolithic, the site had an important settlement in the Neolithic and Bronze Age before being named Pharnake in the Persian period. Following the victories of Alexander the Great, it received a Macedonian garrison and took the name of Pella. When, in 300/299 BC, Seleucos I Nicator founded a colony there, the site was renamed Apamea in honour of the king's wife, the Persian princess Apama. The city became an important military base for the Seleucid kings and underwent major urban development from the 2nd century onwards. At the very beginning of our era, its population (city and countryside) probably reached about 500,000 inhabitants, according to the census of Quirinus (AD 6/7). Apamea was the object of particular attention from the Roman Emperor Claudius and once again benefited from imperial largesse during its reconstruction following the disastrous earthquake of 115, which was at the origin of a major renewal of its urban planning. Its strategic position led to the installation of the Second Parthian Legion (215-218, 231-233, 242-244) for several winters, during the Roman expeditions against the Parthians. However, the city briefly fell into the hands of the Sassanian king Shapur in 252. It also suffered severe damages from several earthquakes, particularly in the 4th and 6th centuries, or from the fire caused by the Persians in 573 when they ravaged the city. At the beginning of the 5th century, Apamea became the capital of the province of Syria Secunda and the capital of the archbishopric. Taken over by Heraclius in 628, after six years of Persian occupation, it finally opened its doors to the Arabs after the Yarmuk Battle in 636. The acropolis remained a major strategic challenge for the Byzantines, the Franks of Antioch or the Muslims. Furthermore, the excavations revealed a continuous occupation of certain areas of the lower town at least until the last and destructive earthquakes of 1157 and 1170.

The city of Apamea covers an area of about 260 hectares intra muros. Its defensive wall is 7 km long and seems to have been built, on at least part of its current layout, in the 2nd century BC. It underwent several modifications (plan, towers, repairs) until the end of the 6th century AD. The city follows an orthogonal plan divided into blocks with two large streets with gates, oriented North-South (Great Colonnade) and East-West (Theatre Street). The Great Colonnade, as it appears today, is part of a vast edilitarian programme implemented during the 2nd century AD. Inscriptions allow to date to the end of Trajan's reign a section of the colonnade located in the northern third of its length and associated with the Baths of L. Iulius Agrippa. While another section, located in the centre of the city and decorated with spiral-fluted columns, bears inscribed consoles dating to the reigns of Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius. 

Fig. 2: plan of Apamea

Fig. 3 : Section of the Great Colonnade

Apart from the Great Colonnade, few remains uncovered in Apamea date to the 2nd century AD. Next to the Baths of L. Iulius Agrippa, let us mention those of the "North-East Quarter", which we will discuss below, the agora and the theatre, which with its 139 m diameter is one of the largest in the ancient world and the largest in Syria. Its construction probably dates back to the end of the 2nd century. As for the great temple of Zeus Bêlos, whose prestigious oracle attracted many visitors, including the Emperor Septimius Severus, it was destroyed in the 4th century, leaving only its foundations on a terrace overlooking the agora. Most of the private and public buildings visible today date back to the 5th and 6th centuries. Previous excavations uncovered luxurious patrician houses organised around one or more peristyle courts. Among them, let us mention the so-called "triclinos" building, which occupies two thirds of a block and whose mosaic floors are of outstanding quality, such as this delicate personification of the Earth, surrounded by the Seasons or the famous " Great Hunt Mosaic", now preserved at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels. The building may have been the residence of one of the province high dignitaries, if not the governor himself. 

Fig. 4 : Great Hunt Mosaic (so-called Triclinos Building) © KMKG-MRAH  

About ten churches are also known so far, including the Eastern Cathedral, forming a complex of more than 12.000 m2 to the east of the so-called "triclinos" building. This building, which also included the Episcopal Palace, is one of the most important in the ancient East. 

Between 2001 and 2011, the excavations carried out by the "Belgian Archaeological Mission at Apamea in Syria", with the support of the Université libre de Bruxelles (CReA-Patrimoine) and in collaboration with other research centres (Centre Ausonius UMR 5607, Université Michel-de-Montaigne Bordeaux 3, Institut des Études Anciennes, Université Laval - Québec), focused on the study of the "North-East Quarter", the "Tycheion" and its surroundings as well as the western part of the circuit wall. This work was financed by the Ministère de la Recherche scientifique de la Communauté française de Belgique (Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles), the Fonds national belge de la Recherche scientifique (F.R.S-FNRS) and the Université libre de Bruxelles.

The objective of the excavation programme of the "North-East Quarter" was to understand the organisation of one of the first block to the north of the city and its articulation with the circuit wall. The research first focused on the structures related to water supply, composed of several cisterns and of the aqueduct that enters the city at this point, passing through Tower III. The construction of the aqueduct dates back to the reign of Claudius (around 47/48), as witnessed by an inscription found near the North Gate. The hydraulic installations unearthed near Tower III and inside the city have however undergone several changes in layout over the following centuries. A portion of the wall and an adjacent street, as well as Tower II, were also excavated together with a bath complex, located directly against the street of the defensive wall. 

The baths of the "North-East Quarter" were built in the 2nd century AD and remain partially in use until the 7th century. This complex of twenty rooms, covering a total surface area of 1200 m2, saw a series of changes over time in the function of its rooms and in the organisation of its circulation. A large part of this complex was then occupied as houses until the 14th century. Further south, three porticoes of a peristyle court that could belong to a palestra have been uncovered. An annex building located to the west of the palestra as well as a large Byzantine building with an undetermined function, located to the south of the complex, have also been partially excavated. Finally, soundings were carried out on several sections of the second street (E2 street), perpendicular to the Great Colonnade, allowing to identify Roman levels of circulation that were later raised in the Byzantine period.

Fig. 5: Baths of the North-East Quarter : the tepidarium with its hypocaust and four pools

Work has also resumed in the city centre, around the "Tycheion", an imposing public building located between the Agora and the Great Colonnade, with the aim of establishing the function and the chronology of the building. The traditional identification of the monument comes from the discovery in 1938 of an inscription, probably reused, mentioning a temple dedicated to Tyche. The building whose primary function remains unknown (nymphaeum, odeon) seems to have been rebuilt in the middle of the 2nd century on the foundations of a building dating to the 1st century AD. Its eastern façade, made of spolia, indicates a rebuilding phase which remains to be dated. Excavations also indicated that the surroundings of the building underwent a radical transformation at the end of the 4th century or the beginning of the 5th century, followed by intense occupation during the Umayyad and especially during the Abbasid period.

Fig 6: the eastern facade of the "Tycheion".

Finally, a western section of the defensive wall was also the subject of several excavation campaigns. Work showed the existence of two different segments, one from the Hellenistic period in the north-western/south-eastern direction, the other from the Roman period, partially resting on the first section. The wall appears to have been dismantled quite early (between the 6th/ 7th century and 10th/ 11th century), being in an area of the city that was now abandoned.

Next to the excavations, various projects of restoration, architectural analysis and material studies (ceramics, glass, iron objects, coins, fauna) have been carried out by Belgian and by international teams and are still ongoing research. 

The results of the campaigns were presented between 2007 and 2015 in the Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire (fascicule 1: Antiquité) and the results of previous or more recent work carried out in Apamea are now published in the new series "Fouilles d'Apamée de Syrie", at the Académie royale de Belgique.

Contact :
Didier Viviers 
Agnès Vokaer 

For more information on the excavation at Apamea : http://apamee.org