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Ras el Bassit: An Early Byzantine Church in Coastal North Syria

Nicolas Beaudry, Département des Sciences Humaines, Université du Québec à Rimouski, Project Grant 2007–2008

Ras el Bassit is located on the North Syrian coast, half-way between Seleukia Pieria and Laodikeia ad Mare. Abandoned in the seventh century, the ancient settlement boasts an excellent potential for the archaeological investigation of the Early Byzantine period, in a region where it has been little studied and where stratified data from this period remains scarce.N. Beaudry, "Ras el Bassit et l'antiquité tardive sur la côte nord-syrienne," Revue d'études des civilisations anciennes du Proche-Orient 13 (2007): 19–28. From 2000 to 2004, survey and partial excavation funded by the Université de Montréal allowed a preliminary reconstruction of the plan, inner elevations, and chronology of a sixth- and seventh-century church built over a synagogue,N. Beaudry, "Formes architecturales et géographie historique: l'église de Bassit et le corpus nord-syrien," in Mélanges Jean-Pierre Sodini, ed. F. Baratte, V. Déroche, C. Jolivet-Lévy, and B. Pitarakis (Paris, 2005), 119–36. while full quantification and analysis of pottery and glass finds was begun in 2004.P. J. E. Mills and N. Beaudry, "The Ceramic Coarse Wares from the Basilica Excavations at Ras el Bassit, Syria: A Preliminary Assessment," in LRCW2: Late Roman Coarse Wares, Cooking Wares and Amphorae in the Mediterranean: Archaeology and Archaeometry, BAR, ed. M. Bonifay and J.-C. Treglia (Oxford, 2007), 745–54. The current project seeks to contribute to the understanding of the Early Byzantine North Syrian coast through the excavation and study of this church and of its related material culture.

Fieldwork resumed in Bassit in 2007 as two parallel projects. Excavation and study of the church and its related finds were funded by Dumbarton Oaks, while survey and recording outside the church were funded by a grant from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), as part of a wider field project investigating the economy and fabric of the settlement in Late Antiquity. This report on this first season of the new projects deals primarily with activities and results relating to the church and only briefly summarizes the other activities and their results.

The 2007 season lasted from July 9th to July 30th. The team comprised Prof. Nicolas Beaudry (Université du Québec à Rimouski), project director, site vice-director, and field archaeologist; Ms. Amélie A. Berthon (Université de Clermont-Ferrand-2), field archaeologist and draftsperson; Ms. (now Dr.) Sophie Garreau (Université de Paris-IV Sorbonne), field archaeologist and site supervisor; Mr. Elio Hobdari (Instituti Arkeologjik Tirana), architect; Dr. Philip E. J. Mills (University of Leicester), finds specialist; Mr. Ibrahim Moussa (student, University of Damascus), representing the Directorate General of Antiquities of the Syrian Arab Republic. Prof. Manon Savard, environmental archaeologist and part of the SSHRC project, was on maternity leave.

Fig. 1: Plan of the church in its last phase (reconstructions in grey), with the later chapel in the apse and (hatched) areas explored in 2007.
Fig. 1: Plan of the church in its last phase (reconstructions in grey), with the later chapel in the apse and (hatched) areas explored in 2007.

The field season in Bassit lasted from July 11th to July 28th (not including transit and representation in Damascus). A first objective was to assess the condition of the site and site house and reopen them to field research. In the light of this assessment, objectives specific to the church were to resume and complete the detailed record and excavation of collapsed masonries in the eastern part of the nave; to investigate the stratigraphy and chronology of the sanctuary; and to resume the cataloguing of the pottery and glass finds from the previous and ongoing excavations. Objectives specific to the SSHRC project included survey, and clearing and planning of an area to the east of the church, where standing remains had been previously identified. This short field season was also intended to allow the planning of the logistics and methodology of the next field seasons.

After the cleaning of the church, of its vicinity and of the area where architectural blocks are sorted and stored, activities on site concentrated in three areas: the eastern parts of the central and south naves (SE quadrant of the naves), the sanctuary and, outside the church, the area to the east (fig. 1). An effort was also put on documenting, cataloguing, and drawing finds.

Record and Excavation of the Collapsed Masonries in the Naves

Fig. 2: Nave and sanctuary after excavation, looking east.
Fig. 2: Nave and sanctuary after excavation, looking east.

The collapsed masonries of large-size, single-coursed ashlars in the church are highly structured deposits and their excavation demands a full documentation. This includes the systematic planning and photographic coverage of every layer of collapsed masonry, and the systematic numbering, coordinating and cataloguing of all architectural elements. Stratigraphic excavation of such deposits is complicated by the size and weight of most the blocks, the uneven conservation of the limestone, and the necessity to proceed safely while protecting neighboring and underlying remains and avoiding their contamination.

Fig. 4: Capital B.982 of the second order of the south colonnade.
Fig. 4: Capital B.982 of the second order of the south colonnade.

The full record and excavation of the collapsed masonries in the southeast quadrant of the naves (areas FE and FES), begun in 2004, was continued in 2007 under the supervision of S. Garreau and was completed in the central nave. Architectural elements recovered and documented in 2007 include the voussoirs of a window opening over the triumphal arch; its splayed sill, which allowed the re-interpretation of several previously unidentified blocks; several blocks that carried carpentry; and one of the capitals of the second order.

Excavation also yielded the remains of the south half of the limestone fence of the sanctuary, partly standing in situ and better preserved than the north half. While these remains confirm an earlier reconstruction of the fence, cuts in fence posts and in the upper step are evidence of a late modification to the spatial organization of the church, by the addition of an enclosure abutting the fence and further extending the sanctuary into the central nave.

The excavation of the lower destruction levels, including roof tiles, galleries flooring and intrusive material, may yield further evidence of this device. Open area excavation will proceed when the recording and removal of collapsed masonries is completed in the side-aisle.

Sounding in the Sanctuary

Fig. 6: Sounding in the sanctuary, looking north.
Fig. 6: Sounding in the sanctuary, looking north.
Excavated remains had already shown evidence of changes in the layout of the sanctuary before this late enclosure was evidenced in 2007. A sounding was opened in the northernmost quarter of the eastern bay and carried out by A. Berthon to provide a better understanding of the evolution of the sanctuary.

Excavation was carried down to a mortared floor related to the remains of steps leading into the apse. To the north, a compact mortar fills a trench cut into this floor and bears the pillar of the north colonnade and of the triumphal arch, whose dry, single-course ashlar masonry abuts the mixed ashlar and rubble-core masonry of the apse. The apse thus belongs to an earlier building, possibly the synagogue. Both pillars bear the same profile, at different heights corresponding to the steps of the apse. To the west, a line of blocks rests on the first mortared floor and bears the remains of successive layers of rendering. It is provisionally interpreted as the limit of a first or second state of the sanctuary, which already included the first bay and extended on two levels; whether these blocks carried a fence is unknown. The sounding also yielded remains of the mortared bedding of a pavement belonging to this first phase of the church.

The addition of a second step to the west later allowed the filling of the first bay, raised to the level of the apse and paved in opus sectile (of which little remains) on a thick bedding of stones, mortar, and coarse ware sherds. This new step bears a limestone fence to the west (see above), while two blocks resting on the fill form the support of another fence to the north (in situ, fig. 6). In the northeast corner, cuts and traces of mortar on the pillars and an eroded pit in the fill probably belong to a secondary burial sealed with a mortared slab and later robbed.

After the destruction of the church and a long abandon, the ruins of the apse were cleared to give way to a small chapel associated with early thirteenth-century Frankish finds. The sounding allowed the foundation trench of its façade to be sampled.

Documentation of the Church and Church Complex

Documentation of standing and excavated architectural remains was resumed by E. Hobdari. This includes two section drawings of the west façade and the drawing of several architectural elements, including capitals, window voussoirs and sills, gallery parapets, and fragments of the fence of the sanctuary.


Finds analysis was resumed in 2007 by P. Mills and aims to provide a fully quantified assemblage. Priority was given to the verification and updating of the fabrics and forms catalogues, the cataloguing of finds recovered in 2007, and the continuation of the inventory and analysis of pottery and glass finds recovered in the church since 2000.

Fig. 7: Overall chronological distribution of pottery finds by rim equivalent (no dated pottery from AD 900 to 1090).
Fig. 7: Overall chronological distribution of pottery finds by rim equivalent (no dated pottery from AD 900 to 1090).

At the end of the 2007 season, all pottery assemblages from the naves and the side rooms of the apse had been examined. A total of 11,610 sherds have been coded, weighing 200 kg, which represents a total estimated vessel equivalent (EVE) of 8666 % and a minimum number of rims of 898. Catalogued finds represent a wide range of different deposit types, including residual material brought in from first- to fourth-century AD rubbish dumps and reused as fill, and hard-core material reused in masonries and/or in flooring. As excavation was still focused on the record and excavation of collapsed masonries, save for limited soundings, relatively little material has yet been examined from phases predating the last phase of the church. Finds from the destruction levels include residual material from the make-up of the floors of the galleries, occupation material, and intrusive material related to later activity on the site, including robbing and the construction and use of the chapel. Functional analysis reveals an increase in the proportion of LRA1 amphorae and pithoi in the lower destruction levels, particularly in the room to the north of the apse, where a complete table was found.N. Beaudry, "Un autel et son reliquaire à Ras el Bassit (Syrie du Nord)," Hortus Artium Medievalium 11 (2005): 111–22.

The identification, cataloguing, and quantification of glass fragments was completed in 2007. As with pottery, most of this material must be considered residual, with the exception of material recovered on the floors and in the lower destruction levels, mainly lamps and window glass. Given the nature of the deposits excavated in 2007, only a few coins and metal objects were found. They include a lead fishing net weight bearing a stamped inscription, similar to two other specimen found in 2000–02.I WANNOU / +KAÏWNN[ ] : N. Beaudry, "La basilique de Ras el Bassit, une église paléochrétienne sur la côte de Syrie du Nord," Ph.D. diss. (Université de Montréal & Université de Paris-I Panthéon-Sorbonne, 2004), 138, pl. CXXXIV. Finds also include a residual, dog-head-shaped spout of a Roman askos, comparable to that of a complete vessel found in 1976 in a Roman tomb and now in the Museum of Lattakia.P. Courbin, "Une nouvelle fouille française sur la côte syrienne: a-t-on retrouvé l'antique Posideion à Ras el Bassit?," Archeologia 116 (1978): 48–62.

Survey and Clearing Outside the Church

Fig. 8: Preliminary plan of the area to the east of the church.
Fig. 8: Preliminary plan of the area to the east of the church.
The existence of standing remains in the forest to the east of the church was known for several years, but visibility was too low to allow any comprehension of their plan. Clearing to the east of the church allowed E. Hobdari to survey and plan the remains of several buildings, as part of the SSHRC project.

Structures are organized on the same orthogonal grid as the synagogue and the church, with circulation axes running WNW-ESE and NNE-SSW; one of these axes leads to a gate of the church complex. Eastward from the church, visible remains include the curtain wall of the church complex, a possible NNE-SSW axis, and a large enclosed space in which no division is visible. Further east, a large building comprises several rooms; a threshold slightly above the present ground level indicates that if they are preserved, the early Byzantine floors are very shallow. Residual pottery is very abundant over the whole area. The archaeological potential of this area will be assessed in 2008 and excavation may follow.

Conservation of the Site

The team was relieved to find out that the remains of the church remained in good condition and were still cut by a forest curtain from other activities at the site.

To the west, a new road was being built along the coast, on the site of the antique quarries and with material taken from them. This activity was destroying evidence of ancient quarrying methods and facilities, including sea-bound ramps that allowed the transport of the blocks by raft. A short visit to the quarries allowed E. Hobdari to write a brief report on his observations. The road may also threaten a Roman necropolis reported further on the cape.


Interim reports were presented at a colloquium in MontrealN. Beaudry, "La basilique de Ras el Bassit et la fin de l'antiquité sur la côte nord-syrienne," Archéologues québécois autour du monde (Montreal, November 2007), proceedings in preparation. and at the AIA Annual Meeting in Chicago,N. Beaudry, P. J. E. Mills, and M. Savard, "The North Syrian Coast in Late Antiquity: Current Fieldwork at Ras el Bassit," Archaeological Institute of America 109th> Annual Meeting, January 3–6, 2008, Chicago, Illinois, Abstracts 31 (Boston, 2007), 42. and another is in preparation for publication. An interim report on the pottery analysis will be presented at the LRCW3 conference in Parma and Pisa in March 2008.P. J. E. Mills and N. Beaudry, "The Pottery from Late Antique Ras el Bassit,"LRCW3, 3rd International Conference on Late Roman Coarse Wares, Cooking Wares and Amphorae in the Mediterranean: Archaeology and Archaeometry (Parma and Pisa, March 2008), in preparation.