So many people have fled to Syria’s crowded northwest that families have settled in important archaeological sites. “We, too, have become ruins.”
AL-KFEIR, Syria — As the sun set, children in dirty clothes and battered shoes herded sheep past the towering stone walls of a Byzantine settlement abandoned more than 1,000 years ago, leading them into an ancient cave nearby where the animals would spend the night.
Laundry hung near the semi-cylindrical wall of a ruined, centuries-old church. Vegetables grew between the remnants of two rectangular doorways ornamented with carved leaf patterns. Scattered about were giant cut stones from what had once been an extensive town.
It was here, at the vast archaeological site of al-Kfeir, Syria, where Abu Ramadan and his family sought shelter more than a year ago after fleeing a Syrian government assault.
They’ve been here ever since.
Abu Ramadan, 38, said he cared little for the site’s history as a trading and agricultural center, but appreciated the sturdy walls that blunted the wind and the abundance of cut stones that a family who had lost everything could salvage to piece together a new life.
“We built these from the ruins,” he said, pointing to a chicken coop and wood-burning stove. “We, too, have become ruins.”
As Syria’s 10-year civil war has displaced millions of people, families like Abu Ramadan’s have sought refuge from a modern war behind the walls of dozens of ancient villages sprinkled across the hills of the country’s northwest, a region still out of the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Since their original owners left them between the eighth and 10th centuries, these ruins have remained in remarkably good condition for more than 1,000 years, their stone structures largely withstanding the passing of empires and battering by the wind and rain.
But Syria’s current conflict has posed new threats to these sites with their columnated churches, multistory homes and elegant bathhouses. Their facades are now marred by bullets, their pillars shattered by airstrikes and their limestone walls sought out for protection by soldiers, rebels and jihadists battling for the country’s future.
Millenniums of human habitation have left Syria strewn with historical sites that date to Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman eras. UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, has designated six World Heritage sites in Syria, including, in 2011, the ruins in the northwest, called the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria.
The use of these sites as informal refugee camps, archaeologists fear, presents a formidable threat to their future as the families add new walls, drive in tent posts and cart off stones.
“The walls protect us from the wind, the cold and everything else,” said Abdulaziz Hassan, 45, whose family lives in a tent inside the remains of the 1,800-year-old Temple of Zeus Bomos near the village of Babuta.
Mr. Hassan, a gardener before the war, had moved repeatedly with his family to flee government advances into rebel territory, finally settling in the ruins because they didn’t have to pay rent as those who pitched tents on private land did.
“Where else can we go?” he said. “Everywhere you go, you have to pay.”
The remains of three temple walls towered over his tent, and the surrounding hillside was marked by toppled pillars and giant stones bearing carvings and Greek inscriptions.
The war damaged historic sites elsewhere in Syria, too.
Crac de Chevaliers, one of the world’s best preserved Crusader castles, was littered with rubble when the government seized it from rebels in 2014.
And after the jihadists of the Islamic State took control of the majestic, 2,000-year-old ruins of the city of Palmyra, they held executions in its Roman theater.
The historical sites in Syria’s northwest, near the border with Turkey, received less attention before the war. They were so numerous, and so undeveloped as tourist sites, the area felt like an open-air museum.
Visitors could scamper about the remains of pagan temples and early Christian churches, descend into underground storerooms hewn from rocky hillsides, and admire intricate designs around windows and carved crosses over doorways.
The Syrian government branded them “the Forgotten Cities” to attract visitors.
Built between the first and seventh centuries, they provided “a remarkable testimony to rural life” during the transition from the pagan Roman Empire to the Christian Byzantines, UNESCO said.
The ancient towns were abandoned over subsequent centuries because of changes in climate, and shifting trade routes and political control — but not because of war, a primary reason they were so well preserved, said Amr Al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquities official and now a professor of Middle East history at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.
Efforts to protect the sites froze when Syria’s war broke out in 2011, and armed groups began using them as bases.
In 2016, airstrikes damaged the Church of St. Simeon, shattering the remains of the pillars on top of which its hermit namesake is said to have lived for nearly 40 years before his death in 459.
Pressure on the sites increased further last year, when a government offensive pushed nearly a million people into the rebel-controlled northwest. About 2.7 million of the 4.2 million people now living in the region have been displaced from elsewhere in Syria.
The rebel-held area is small and crowded, and people are confined, with a wall along the Turkish border to the north to keep them from fleeing and hostile government forces to the south. As the new arrivals scrambled to find shelter in destroyed buildings, olive groves and sprawling tent camps, some settled in the ancient sites.
Families with livestock liked the sites because they had more space than the crowded refugee camps. Many used the sturdy, precut stones to build animal pens or reinforce their tents.
Some sites have underground caves, where families store belongings and hide from airstrikes when they hear fighter jets overhead.
Ayman Nabo, an antiquities official with the local administration in Idlib Province, said shelling and airstrikes had damaged many historical sites while poverty and the chaos of war had encouraged illegal excavations by treasure hunters.
But the greatest threat to the sites’ survival, he said, was people making off with stones or breaking them apart to build new structures.
“If this continues, a whole archaeological site could disappear,” he said.
The local administration lacked the resources to protect the sites, but Mr. Nabo said he hoped they survived, both for future generations and for the people now trapped in what he called “a big prison,” with government forces controlling roads to the Mediterranean coast and the rest of Syria.
“We no longer have a sea,” he said. “We no longer have a river. We no longer have a forest for children to visit.” So people need the sites as “places to breathe.”
For now, they are homes of last resort for battered families.
“Whenever it rains, we get wet,” said Sihan Jassem, 26, whose family had moved three times since fleeing their home and ending up in an improvised tent of blankets and tarps amid the ruins of Deir Amman, a Byzantine village.
“The children play on the ruins and we worry that the rocks will fall on them,” she said.
Her sister, widowed by the war, lived in a nearby tent with five children.
The sun reflected off wet wildflowers, and sheep wandered among the scattered stones, grazing near an ancient wall where a modern romantic had written in spray paint, “Your love is like a medicine.”
But Ms. Jassem found no romance in her surroundings.
“We wish we had stayed in our homes,” she said, “and never seen these ruins.”