Between Sky and Sand

In the shadow of
the crescent’s fertile arc,
where ancient stones rest
deep within the earth,
Roman hands
once marked their land
with spade,
with sweat,
with blood.
Lonely island forts
stood brooding
in a sea of rolling dunes
and lifeless lakes,
the wind’s haunting cry
echoed deep
as walls rose high,
carving their fate
in the shifting dust
of fading mounds.
Silent sentinels scan the land,
unearthing relics buried
beneath history’s vast expanse.
Spectral rays pierce
the desert’s timeless shroud,
revealing ancient walls,
majestic fortresses,
and tales of lives once loud.
Ghostly remnants,
teeming with legions
now mere whispers
on the wind-sculpted terrain –
lost in the endless dance
of time’s unceasing sands.

CORONA images showing some of the forts (image credit: J.Casana et al.; CORONA imagery courtesy U.S. Geological Survey).

This poem is inspired by recent research, which has used Cold War spy satellite imagery to reveal Ancient Roman forts.

Two thousand years ago, forts were erected by the Roman Empire across the northern Fertile Crescent, stretching from present-day western Syria to north-western Iraq. In the 1920s, Father Antoine Poidebard catalogued 116 forts in the region, undertaking one of the world’s inaugural aerial surveys with a WWI-era biplane. Poidebard noted that these forts were built from north to south, delineating the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.

In this new study, researchers used declassified satellite imagery from the CORONA and HEXAGON satellites, collected between 1960 and 1986. These images, part of the CORONA Atlas Project, were refined for accuracy, and by examining a 300,000 square kilometre area of the northern Fertile Crescent, the team mapped 4,500 known sites and identified an additional 10,000 sites. Among these, they pinpointed 38 of Poidebard’s original 116 forts and discovered 396 new ones in the same region. Some of these forts had variations in design, including unique interior structures and those built around a mounded citadel. The findings significantly expand our understanding of the region’s historical landscape, challenging previous notions about the purpose and distribution of these forts and offering a broader view of the Roman Empire’s influence and infrastructure in this region.

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