Al-Rastan (on hill in background) and waterwheel (forefront) separated by Orontes River, 1930s
|Elevation||430 m (1,410 ft)|
|Time zone||EET (UTC+2)|
|• Summer (DST)||+3 (UTC)|
Al-Rastan (Arabic: الرستن) is the third largest city in the Homs Governorate, located 25 kilometers (16 mi) north of its administrative capital Homs and 22 kilometers (14 mi) from Hama. Nearby localities include Talbiseh and al-Ghantu to the south, al-Zaafaraniyah and al-Mashrafah to the southeast, Murayj al-Durr to the northeast, Tumin to the north, Deir al-Fardis to the northwest and Kafr Nan and the Houla village cluster to the west. Al-Rastan had a population of nearly 40,000 in 2004.
It occupies the site of the Roman-era city of Arethusa and still contains some of its ancient ruins. It continued to exist as a relatively small, but strategic town throughout the early Islamic and Ottoman eras. Since the start of the 2011–2012 Syrian uprising, al-Rastan has served as a major opposition stronghold and has been the site of heavy clashes between the Syrian government's security forces and rebels from the Free Syrian Army.
Al-Rastan is situated adjacently south of the large bridge linking Homs and Hama. The total land area of the town is 350 hectares. It is the site of the Al-Rastan Dam, a major dam on the Orontes River that has a retaining capacity of 225 million m³. The dam is principally used for irrigation. The city also contains one of Syria's principal marlstone quarries. The city is currently run by hard line Islamists opposed to the secular government.
Al-Rastan was built on the site of ancient Arethusa. According to Roman historian Appian, the city was established by Seleucus I Nikator, founder of the Seleucid dynasty in the 3rd century BCE. Most sources agree Seleucus named it after the city of Arethusa in Greek Macedonia, but others claim it was named after a village in Sicily with the same name. Arethusa had originally been a native Syriac town called "Arastan," mentioned in the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, whose name was Hellenized as "Arethusa" by Seleucus. To a lesser extent, "Arastan" continued to be used, particularly by the indigenous inhabitants, alongside "Arethusa."
It served as the first capital of the Emesani kingdom in central Syria, a vassal of the Roman Empire, in the mid-1st-century BCE. Roman historian Strabo stated that it was well governed under the phylarch Sampsiceramus I between 64–63 BCE, until it was conquered by the Roman general Pompey by the end of the latter year. Emesani control was restored by 46 BCE when it was ruled by Iamblichus I. During the Roman Civil War, the city's inhabitants sided with Mark Antony against Octavian. Nonetheless, Arethusa became an independent city-state following Octavian's victory in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE until 20 BCE when it again returned to Emesene control. Consequently, its status declined with the rise of nearby Emesa (modern-day Homs) as a religious and political center.
By the end of the 4th-century CE, Arethusa and the cities of Apamea (modern-day Qalaat al-Madiq), Epiphania (modern-day Hama) and Larissa (modern-day Shaizar) formed the Roman province of Syria Secunda. In the late 4th century CE, Mark of Arethusa, a native bishop, attempted to convert Arethusa's pagan inhabitants to Christianity by force but was defeated. Afterward, the emperor Julian had the city's pagan temple rebuilt and Mark tortured and killed.
When the Byzantine Empire officially adopted Christianity in the early 5th century, Arethusa became an episcopal see subject to the metropolitan see of Apamea. Lebanese sources such as Giuseppe Simone Assemani and bishop Yusef al-Dibs claim that Maron, the patron saint of the Maronite Church, was buried in Arethusa after his death in 410. Most Maronite sources also believe the Monastery of Maron was located in the city as well.
According to early Muslim geographers, al-Rastan, despite its strong fortifications and large garrison was swiftly captured then destroyed by Abu Ubaida's forces during the Muslim conquest of Syria in 634, while Umar ibn al-Khattab was caliph. In early 945 the Aleppo-based Hamdanids under the leadership of Sayf al-Dawla decisively defeated the Ikhshidid army led by Abu al-Misk Kafur at al-Rastan from which they proceeded to conquer Damascus. According to one account, about 4,000 Ikshidid soldiers were taken captive in addition to hundreds killed in action or drowned in the Orontes River.
In 1115 while Artukid ruler Ilghazi was resting at al-Rastan on his way north to Diyarbakir, Khir Khan ibn Qaraja, the Seljuk ruler of Homs, attacked his camp and briefly had him imprisoned. Following Saladin's arrival at al-Rastan in February 1175, the Crusaders under Raymond of Tripoli withdrew from their siege of Homs which was then captured by Saladin, bringing most of Syria under Ayyubid rule. In 1226, during Ayyubid rule, Syrian geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi visited al-Rastan and wrote that it was "a small and ancient town ... It is now a ruin, but the remains still show what was its former splendor."
The Mamluks gained control over Syria in the 1260s, and organized the region into kingdoms subordinate to the sultanate in Cairo. Al-Rastan became the southernmost town of Mamlakat Hama ("Kingdom of Hama") near the border with Mamlakat Hims. In a major battle at a place between the town and Homs, the Mamluks under Qalawun decisively defeated the invading Mongol army of the Ilkhanate in 1281. Later, in the early 14th century, Abu'l Fida noted that in al-Rastan, "Each of the houses is so large as to be almost like a village, with ruins everywhere round of buildings and walls." He further noted that a few arches, gates, parts of the city wall and its water channel were still present.
In the late 16th-century or early 17th-century, during Ottoman rule, the caravanserai Khan al-Rastan was built just outside the town. Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, the 17th-century Sufi sheikh, visited the false tomb of Persian Sufi mystic Abu Yazid al-Bistami at al-Rastan (the actual one is in Bistam) in 1678, writing "over his grave there is splendor and awe, asserting his presence there." Khan al-Rastan was visited in 1745 by Edward Pococke who described as it as a "huge fortified caravanserai" that was decaying rapidly.
At the beginning of the 19th-century, al-Rastan was an impoverished village whose population engaged primarily in husbandry. It occupied the northernmost part of Arethusa's ruins. Like Homs during this period, its houses were built of black trapp. They were described as small, ramshackle dwellings with mud roofs supported by wooden beams. A few buildings dating from the Mamluk era contained arches with the ablaq architectural style.
During the Franco–Syrian War, al-Rastan served as one of the bases for Salih al-Ali and his local allies and was shelled by French forces in early 1920. Two Sunni Muslim agricultural clans, the Firzat and the Hamdan, dominated al-Rastan in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The former claimed descent from the Banu 'Abs tribe that arrived in Syria as part of Khalid ibn al-Walid's army in the mid-7th-century. A member, Sheikh Abd al-Qader, served as al-Rastan's mukhtar in the late Ottoman and French Mandate periods.
Abd al-Qader was the father of Mustafa Tlass who would become Defense Minister under Hafez al-Assad in 1972. The Hamdan had greater influence in the city and politically identified itself with the Nasserist trend which gained mass appeal in the Arab world in the 1950s–60s.
Ongoing Syrian civil war
Al-Rastan was one of the first cities to participate in the Syrian uprising against the government of Bashar al-Assad that would lead to the ongoing Syrian civil war. In mid-April large anti-government demonstrations began taking place in al-Rastan as well as nearby Talbiseh. On 28 April about 50 local Ba'ath Party officials resigned from the organization in protest of the government and opposition activists claimed 17 demonstrators were killed by security forces. On 29 May, the Syrian Army launched an assault on the city which lasted through most of the first week of June. By 2 June local activists claimed at least 52 civilians were killed, while the government stated four of its soldiers were killed in the offensive.
By August 2011, al-Rastan was mostly in the hands of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) which was made up of defectors from the Syrian Army and civilian volunteers. According to Al Jazeera, "Many defectors from the army come from Rastan." The unit based in the city called themselves the Khalid ibn al-Walid Battalion. That month saw the FSA target local government figures and sympathizers, and pro-government Shabiha militiamen attack opposition-held neighborhoods. In late September the Syrian Army, reportedly backed by tanks and helicopters, launched an operation to retake the city resulting in four days of fighting. The Syrian Army succeeded and the FSA withdrew.
Opposition militants regained control of the city by January 2012 reigniting continuous clashes between them and the security forces which started late that month. On 31 January ten activists and their relatives were killed in al-Rastan after their building collapsed from Syrian Army fire. On 6 February a local FSA unit commander Ala'a al-Sheikh reported that at least 42 people were killed by the Syrian Army in the preceding three days. By 4 March the FSA had managed to repel the Syrian Army, although many of their fighters retreated "for tactical reasons" according to their local commander. Army shelling reportedly killed three people that day. On 14 May, opposition sources claimed that nine people were killed as a result of Syrian Army shelling, while 23 soldiers were killed after the FSA attacked Syrian Army armored carriers approaching the city. An FSA member stated that al-Rastan "has been destroyed."
In 1970 al-Rastan's population was 7,509. It had a population of 39,834 in 2004 according to the census by the Central Bureau of Statistics of Syria (CBS). There were a total of 6,066 households. Reuters news agency put the city's population in 2011–2012 as roughly 60,000. The inhabitants are mostly Sunni Muslims.
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