The Black Stones of Homs

Two years ago, this video was published online as a dedication to the city of Homs. It features lyrics from a poem by Nasib Arida.

Each city in Syria has a defining feature. In Hama, the norias are not only the symbol of the city but often act as a stand-in when wanting to discuss the events of 1982. Damascus is often represented with jasmines and Jabal Qassyoon. No image of Deir Ezzor is complete without the suspension bridge, and when thinking of Raqqa what comes to mind is the dam.  As for Homs, throughout the years, the most consistent image presented is that of its architecture featuring the iconic black stones.

For millennia, the Basalt Desert in Syria has provided the inhabitants of the region with building materials. The desert, dotted with distinctive black boulders and rocks, was formed by early volcanic activity. From the Holocene Epoch on to the Greeks, Ancient Egyptians, Arameans, Seleucids, Romans, Muslim conquerors, Crusaders: all have used the black basalt found in the desert to build cairns, temples, churches, mosques, and citadels.

Homs, which was once known as Emessa, situated on the edges of the desert is commonly referred to in arabic as, ام الحجر السود… mother of the black stones. The old town of Homs is home to old arabic-style houses built with the black stone: large courtyards and the distinct color of the stones making a unique picture. The mosque of Khaled Bin Waleed, before its destruction, was built hand in hand by the Christian and Muslim inhabitants of the city with the black basalt. One of the oldest churches in the world, Um al-Zinnar, named after the relic of  Saint Mary that it houses, was built using this black stone. Pictures of Father Francis, before his murder, show him standing proudly, happily beneath distinct arches of black stone, and Homsis in diaspora today go to sleep with dreams of being surrounded by these same stones.

Homs’ nicknames throughout the decades, as well, have been inspired by these black stones. Starting in the early 15th century, buildings started being constructed with alternating bands of black stone and white stones, which earned Homs the nickname الأبقع (or the piebald) during that time period. Though this name hasn’t carried over to the present-day, the Mother of Black Stones is still referred to as such.

Before 2011, Homs was undergoing a transformation similar to any city in an increasingly globalized world: ‘renewal’. Many old buildings in homs were being demolished in order to make way for new creations of steel and glass. Many had begun lamenting the loss of heritage, and what they saw as the silencing of history to make way for manifestations of an idea of a ‘new Homs.’ Though some of the new buildings constructed featured a nod to the past with incorporated black stone (not basalt), they lacked the character and timelessness of the original basalt.

The character and timelessness of the basalt spans continents. Nasib Arida, a poet from Homs who spent his life in the United States, wrote of his hometown, the Mother of Black Stones, in his poem: صُوَرٌ تَلوحُ لخاطرِ المَعمودِ. His poem relays his feelings towards his city from diaspora… A feeling too many people are familiar with today.

An excerpt from the poem:

يـا جـارَة العاصـي اليـك قـد انتهـى

امَلـي وانــتِ المُبتَـغـى والمُشتَـهـى

قلبـي يَـرى فـيـك المَحـاسِـنَ كلَّـهـا

وعـلــى هَـــواكِ يَـدِيــنُ بالتَـوحـيـدِ

يـا حِمـصُ يـا أُمَّ الحِجـارِ الـسُـودِ

و اجـعـل ضـريـحـي مـن حـجـار سـود

O, Neighbor of the Orontes…
When my hope has finished, you are the desired and wanted.
My heart sees in you all the beauty
And on your breezes, two hands united as one.
O Homs, O mother of the black stones…
And I will make my shrine from the black stones.

Syrian Memory Collective

 The Syrian Memory Collective covers Syrian Culture, History, Literature, Art and Cinema from Syrian experiences in the motherland and diaspora.

(This piece is part of an ongoing series  on Beyond Compromise about Homs. In memory of the city, its brave people and its countless dead.)

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