The Basilica of St. Sergius is a ruined 5th-century Byzantine church dedicated to the famous saint St. Sergius, a Roman soldier martyred c.303 under Maximian. The church was a major pilgrimage site and was later shared with Muslims as a place of worship. It is located in Rasafa (or Risafe) in central Syria, which is now an isolated archaeological site.
History of Basilica of St. Sergius
Rasafa was probably inhabited in Assyrian times. In the Roman period (3rd century), a road ran through Rasafa from the Euphrates River to Palmyra. Diocletian built a fort here to defend against Persian attacks. It was also around this time that a Christian cult of St. Sergius developed in the town, centered on the site of his grave.
According to early Christian accounts, Sergius and Bacchus were officers in the Roman army on the Syrian frontier. They were favorites of the Roman emperor Maximian, but they incurred his wrath by refusing to sacrifice to the pagan god Jupiter because they were Christians. Maximian demoted Sergius and Bacchus, ordering them to be costumed in women's dress and marched through the streets. They were then sent to Rasafa, where they were scourged so severely that Bacchus died. The martyrology reports that boards were nailed to Sergius' feet, upon which he was forced to walk before being beheaded.
By the 5th century, Sergius and Bacchus were among the most popular and revered martyrs in the East. In 431 Alexander, archbishop of Hierapolis, restored the church over Sergius' grave and shortly afterward Rasafa became a bishopric. The Byzantine emperor Justinian I made Rasafa an archdiocese, changing its name to Sergiopolis, and had churches built in the saints' honor at Constantinople (Istanbul) and Acre.
The church at Rasafa became a major pilgrimage site in the East. Sergius and Bacchus were designated protectors of the Byzantine army, and numerous Eastern sanctuaries and churches were dedicated to them. Their veneration reached the West as well: a mass ascribed to Pope St. Gelasius I is assigned to them. Christian desert nomads still regard Sergius as their patron saint.
Although Justinian had funded additional fortifications, Rasafa finally fell to the Persians in 616. After the Arab invasion, it was occupied by Hisham abd al-Malek, who added a large summer residence for himself.
After his death, the Abbasids razed the city to the ground; it remained occupied after that but the population was much reduced. Rasafa was finally abandoned in the 13th century, when the Mongols swept across northern Syria.
What to See at Basilica of St. Sergius
(You can take a virtual wander through the ruins with our Rasafa Photo Gallery.)
The defensive walls around the ancient city are almost entirely intact. They enclose an area of about 550m x 400m, most of which is empty and yet to be excavated. It is possible to climb up some parts of the perimeter walls for a good view.
Entrance to the site is at the north gate, from where the Via Recta (Straight Street) formed the main thoroughfare of the city. It is now only an overgrown pathway, but it is lined with blocks of marble, broken stumps of pillars and chunks of wall.
The main street leads first to the martyrium, a shrine where the bodies of Saint Sergius and his companions Bacchus and Julia were laid to rest. It is a basilican church with an apse. The floor and walls are made of gypsum stone found in Rasafa and the monolithic columns are of rose-colored marble. The chapels are well preserved; the capitals and the archway carved like lace.
Several archways of the martyrium are early Roman style; these were later filled in and remodeled in the Arab style. There are capitals in the Arabic style, similiar to the familiar Corinthian. The whole structure seems to stand only by a miracle — the keystone has already slipped more than half its height — and is in need of restoration and preservation.
A hundred meters east of the martyrium stands a larger and more majestic church, the great Basilica of Saint Sergius. It has the same layout, the same decoration and the same beauty of the building material.
Added onto the north wall of the basilica, and perhaps taken from a lateral nave of the Christian building, is a rectangular, colonnaded hall that was used as a mosque in the 13th or 14th century. Two alcoves made in the church wall became mihrabs. The juxtaposition of Byzantine and Arab writing shows that Christianity and Islam coexisted at Rasafa into the Middle Ages.
Near the basilica, an opening in the southeast corner of the city walls leads to the site where Caliph Hisham built his palace. It had a square layout with rooms opening onto a vast inner courtyard. Very little remains of the structure today.
Behind the martyrium are several vaulted rooms in a building with a central courtyard, used to hold enormous amounts of water (the southernmost is 58 meters long, 22 meters wide and 13 meters deep). It was later an inn for pilgrims. The capacity of the cisterns gives a sense of the population of Rasafa, which is now a stately ruin in the Syrian desert.
Quick Facts on Basilica of St. Sergius
|Names:||Basilica of St. Sergius|
|Categories:||basilicas; churches; desert setting; ruins|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||35.629064° N, 38.757963° E|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Basilica of St. Sergius|
- "Rasafa (Sergioupolis)" - Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo
- "Saints Sergius and Bacchus" - Encyclopædia Britannica (2006)
- Lonely Planet Syria and Lebanon, 3rd ed. (July 2008), 217-18.
Map of Basilica of St. Sergius, Rasafa
Below is a location map and aerial view of Basilica of St. Sergius. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.