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A strategy to Protect Syrian Cultural Heritage

DAMASCUS, (ST)_ The General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums in cooperation with the United Nations Education, Scientific  and Cultural organization UNESCO  will organize on October 24th  in al-Chameyah hall of  the National Museum in Damascus  a technical workshop on Emergency Protection of Syrian Cultural Heritage to have an overview of experiences available in this field, and to strengthen and develop the skills of those working in the directorate as to how to protect movable and immovable cultural property in critical times.

According to Dr. Mamoun Abdulkarim, the Director General of Antiquities and Museums, in an exclusive interview with Syria Times reporter, Butheina al-Nounou, some 35 directorate personnel, and other three senior officials, on behalf of UNESCO, will take part in the workshop.

Most of  Aleppo 's monuments were under the fire of terrorists and huge material damage was reported when terrorist gangs hit Aleppo National Museum after a Car Explosion in Sa'ad Allah Al Jabri Square and Al Amir Hotel in Bab Jininarea , leaving also two guards and the general secretary of the museum wounded.  The damage included many broken windows in the museum, and the falling apart of the prefabricated ceiling.

Some historical buildings and shops in Aleppo ancient markets have been damaged by fire that erupted due to fierce clashes there. Reports indicated that more than 150 shops have been damaged as fire destroyed their stored goods and their new wooden doors. The damage occurred in Souk Al Zerb; Souk Al Ebi, Souk Al Atmeh; Souk Al Atareen; Souk Al Niswan; Souk Al Souf; Souk Al Sagha. Further damage was reported in many other markets that was impossible to assess due to the difficulty for persons  concerned at the Directorate of Aleppo Antiquities to reach the area for estimating and assessment of the extent of this damage.

While deploring the destruction of Aleppo 's treasury, one has to recall that Aleppo Ancient Markets bears witness to one of the most significant pages in the history of Aleppo during the Islamic Ages, with its khans, inns and shops that exceed 1500 in number constituting 39 markets that are ones of the longest covered markets in the entire world.

Nevertheless, the extent of the damage to Syrian cultural heritage can be seen as limited until now, thanks to the cooperation of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museum and all the parties concerned along with the local communities. What has been reported by the media outlets is exaggerated and lacks objectivity and accuracy.

The General Directorate has always been committed to report any damage that may hit the historical sites in Syria with credibility and transparency. For this reason, the Directorate issues a periodic report that includes all information concerning the latest development on the ground, based on data that is regularly updated to assess and document any damage and looting that might occur to museums and archeological sites.

It can be said that all Syrian museums have been well secured, and their artifacts are safe. The most precious and rare pieces have been secured in safer places. Since the beginning of the crisis, looting has been limited to only two artifacts that are not rare pieces: a small golden statue that dates back to the Aramaic period from Hamah Museum, and a marble sculptured piece that is not of a rare archeological value.

Nevertheless,  the distant archeological sites have suffered most due to shortage of guards and the difficulty of providing the necessary protection for them, not to mention the secret excavation by looters of artifacts, a matter that is difficult to control due to the extensively rich heritage that Syria owns.  It is extremely difficult to protect more than 10000 historical sites without mobilizing and engaging the local communities, the thing which the General Directorate really relies on.

Among the sites damaged are: Andreen historical site; Busra (limited damage has hit some archeological buildings); Aphamia (it suffered random excavations, but the site is safe now); the residence of the archeological mission in Tal Saka (limited material damage); Dora Europos; Palmyra (some secret excavations were conducted, but things are under control now); Ebla (secret excavations have been contained, due to the cooperation of the local community).

Excavations in some areas are suspended currently due to the events. International sanctions have greatly affected the presence of foreign archeological missions, though heads of missions have been in constant contact with the General Directorate providing their moral support and good will in advocating the protection of Syrian cultural heritage. Some national missions, however, have been active recently in safe areas (Old Damascus, Tartous, Lattakia, Suweida) and have even discovered new artifacts and antiquities.

To eliminate damages, a strategy was set since the beginning of the crisis, the Ministry of Culture, with the Directorate and other concerned bodies, along with the local communities took many measures to provide protection to all archeological sites. Precautionary steps were taken to contain any acts of trespassing and looting of the cultural heritage, and to repair what was damaged. Rare artifacts were secured in safe places; alarm systems were installed in museums and citadels; the number of archeological guards has been increased, and the role of archeological police has been activated; and the local communities were mobilized to protect heritage in their areas, cities and villages. The more the local communities cooperate, the more protection can be provided against the looters of the invaluable Syrian cultural heritage.

 Butheina Alnounou                                                                                               This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


National Campaign: Engaging Local Communities in Protecting Syria's Cultural Heritage

 The ongoing crisis in Syria has had damaging effects on the archeological heritage in Syria. Some historical sites have been sabotaged, looted, robbed and sometimes even destroyed, with some artifacts smuggled outside the country.  For this reason, the Ministry of Culture, through the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums, launches a national campaign to engage local communities in order to protect Syria's  cultural heritage-  a  treasure for all humanity.

The campaign aims, according to Dr. Mamoun Abdulkarim, the director General of Antiquities and Museums, to raise the awareness of the local communities about the great value of their national heritage, to encourage them to take pride in its constituents and to protect it from theft and sabotage.

In an exclusive interview with Syria Times reporter, Butheina al-Nounou, Dr. Abdulkarim added that it is an established fact that without the support of the local communities to all initiatives set to realize the real value of their heritage, all efforts made by official bodies concerned will remain inadequate to achieve the desired objective.

The campaign will involve all Syrian governorates. It is designed to adopt advertisements and street billboard, in addition to 15-30-minute TV and Radio spots to promote the basic theme of the national campaign. Coordination will be maintained  with journalists in both newspapers and electronic journals to publish introductory and informative articles, serving to this end.  Work will also focus on directing staff in different directorates of Syrian antiquities to cooperate with volunteers and advocates of antiquities preservation, along with opinion leaders, cultural and intellectual elite, and religious figures in rural and urban areas to promote the Syrian heritage protection Campaign. Brochures and other publications will be distributed in universities and schools for this matter.   For further awareness dissemination, the General Directorate for Antiquities and Museums will hold a press conference to launch the campaign and to publicize it in the different media outlets.

Butheina al-Nounou


Ancient Syrian seals may have been incantations to ward off evil or as symbol of fertility

Pottery which appeared around 5500 B.C. spread with rapid growth into northern Mesopotamia and the plateau of Iran, and there, painted pottery which added color in the late Neolithic period, came to be made.  Especially in northern Syria, where , in particular  at Tell- Khalaf, an excellent style of pottery with its thin and fine body and bright colors was developed.

In the post Khalaf period, however, along with the development of production of pottery, the population density of the agricultural villages greatly increased.

When agriculture stabilized, people naturally expected to preserve their food for a long time. Therefore, they began to seal their food vessels with a stamp and later with a cylinder seal. These seals and designs used to imply some kind of incantation with a purpose to ward off evil spirits. Later, the use of these seals further developed and it began to indicate ownership and property. This development was the result of the stabilized state of agriculture and stock- breeding. In the Khalaf period, the population increased quickly and branch villages formed out of the mother- villages.

At that time, agriculture relied on rain, as the same situation remains  in northern Syria today, and food civilization spread  over a wider area. These mother and  branch villages did not operate separately, but formed a huge community and mother villages supplied products  to its branch villages. In  the pre-pottery period, ritual services, which were previously performed in private, began to be done in the village temple and the new cultivated crop was presented there to the gods.

These villages developed into cities with a temple as its nucleus. In this respect, the emergence of cities began in the late Neolithic era. Twenty years ago , upon doing  construction works at Thawra Dam in Tabaqqa, excavation was done by German, Belgian and Dutch teams. These archeologists unearthed a city constructed around a temple and surrounded by a rampart, as seen in the remains of Habuba Kabira  south Tell, Tell Cannas and Jabal Arud.

In Habuba Kabira on the banks of the Euphrates, which was excavated by a German team, clay pipes were found placed on one side of the road to draw up river water and to supply each house.  Habuba Kabira is located on the right bank of the middle reaches of the Euphrates, which is near Raqqa. When excavating for the construction of Thawra dam, research was immediately carried out by a German team from 1969 through 1975. The finds prove that it is the site of a small city ( including  18 hectares of town area),  built at the same time  as the second half of the Uruk period in Mesopotamia. Researches focused especially on discovering the original construction of the town.

However, many cylinder seals and impressions were unearthed in Habuba  Kabira which offer data suitable for studying the early cylinder seals of Syria. Most of the cylinder seals have Zoomorphic designs. Moreover, Tell Brak is a huge mount near the jaqjaq river which is a tributary of el- Khabour river running through northeastern Syria. The  Eye Temple in Tell Brak was constructed on a mound six meters in height. At the lower part of the mound, a layer  of grey bricks was found. This lawyer is thought to have been from the ruins of another temple which is older than the Eye Temple. It has been proved that this place  was a sacred area for a long period of time. Many stamps were unearthed in this layer.

Many of the figurines unearthed at the Eye Temple indicate that they were used as amulets and were discovered in great quantity at a corner  of the grey larger of the mound. They might have been returned to the temple after being used as votive objects. Grog-shaped figurines  were among  the most common ones found at Tell Brak. Form was considered a symbol of fertility and connected with rain. Compared to Mesopotamia which was an agricultural area that used irrigation water, Tell Brak, also an agricultural area, relied  on rainfall and has more from figures. It probably expresses a strong desire for rain.

The Eye Temple of Tell Brak consists of a main room with many other small rooms that run east to west. Similarities found in this temple and the temples excavated at Uruk and Eridu in Mesopotamia are: the temple layout, mosaic designs formed by clay on the walls, and the technique of building temples on a high mound constructed on top of older mounds as was the custom to rebuild sacred places  on the same spot.


Tomader Fateh

New finds in Jableh

The Syrian coast has been renowned for its eventful history and rich archaeological sites that refer to its time-old civilization and great contributions to humanity in all aspects of life.

Recent archaeological excavations conducted in Jableh’s Amphitheatre resulted in the discovery of seven layers, which date back to the Ottoman, Mamluk, Ayyubid, Abbasid, Umayyad, Byzantine and Roman periods.

Director of Jableh’s archaeological Department, Ibrahim Kheir Bek, said that the first layer, which dates back to the Ottoman period, includes a number of Islamic tombs, backbones, and some beads.

Kheir Bek added that excavations of the national archaeological team working in Nibal Peak site, 20 kilometres east of Jableh, unearthed a large structure, built using large carved stone pieces.The structure measures 26.5 m from north to south and is 13.15 m across, built with large stones and smaller, intricately-carved stones in the style of Roman temples. Remains of columns, pottery fragments, Roman and Islamic-era coins were  found there.

Excavation works have been ceaseless during the past few years at Nibal Peak site and other nearby sites, leading to important findings related to the socio-economic and political life in the city over various periods of history. The unearthed finds included a clay lantern adorned with a bird on a branch, glassware, bronze coins and utensils.

It is worth mentioning that the city of Jableh, about 325 kilometres from Damascus, houses important archaeological and religious sites including the tomb and the mosque of Sultan Ibrahim Bin Adham, a famous Sufi mystic who renounced his throne and devoted himself to prayers for the rest of his life.  The city is also the home town of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a famous leader who fought against the French Colonization in Syria, and then moved to Palestine, where he led a revolution against the British mandate and the armed-to-teeth Zionist gangs. Al-Qassam has become an icon of the Palestinian liberation movements and an example to be followed by Arab fighters against occupation.

Historically speaking, Jableh was an important Roman city; one of the main remains of this period is its amphitheatre, with a seating capacity of about 7,000 spectators.  However, the city houses remains that date back to the Iron Age and to different periods of history including the Phoenician Era. Less than one kilometre off the city centre, the visitor can see Tel Twaini, a city that was inhabited from the third millennium BC. The excavations conducted on the site unveiled important facts about the crucial role played by this site at all levels.


Ugarit in the eye of an archeologist

Ugarit, Ras Shamra, is the most important and world-wide famous capital of the  ancient world . It lies hidden among a hill of orange trees overlooking the sea at a distance  of 10 kilometers from the city of lattakia. Its world reputation stems  from the fact of being an everlasting source of myths, a theatre  for the Canaanites Gods and a home for the alphabet  which is  the greatest historical event in humanity.

Promoted by the greatness  of the site and its contents, Professor Charles Virolleaud- a scientist of ancient writings- who managed to solve the symbols of the Ugaritian writings in cooperation with scientists Hans Baur and Edward Dhome said : " the invention  of the alphabet has proved to be  the most exiting human innovation and the greatest historical event, because it emerged from the simplified writing which could be learnt easily by a child. Therefore, many peoples of those who never dreamt of getting rid off illiteracy were helped to become educated.''

Archeologist George Peru said in the same  context, commemorating  the significance of Ugarit 's alphabet  that : the invention of the alphabet was a very important vent that could not be compared with any other event in the history of mankind."

Several American dailies, magazines and art supplements conducted studies and several surveys about the world 's ten important innovators whose discoveries are  of benefit to humanity as a whole since the beginning  of written history. Number one on the list came the man who invented the Alphabet of Ugarit because he helped in conveying  and disseminating  thinking and knowledge which have been transferred through times and beyond boundaries.

The site " Ras Shamra" was discovered by a Syrian farmer and digging works were done under the supervision of the French archeologist  Claude Shiver.

Ever since 1929, excavations  were made annually every spring for one month.

Upon gaining independence in 1946, the government has set up the general department for archaeology and museums, which permitted the French mission to resume excavations at the site as from 1948.

It was found out that the site contains the ruins  of five successive civilizations : the  fifth layer belongs to the Neolithic stone age 7,000-6,000 B.C, the fourth layer dates 4500-4000 B .C, the third went back to 3500- 2100 B.C, the second to  2100, 1600 B.C and the first layer to 1600- 1200 B.C.

The kingdom of  Ugarit  was discovered in the first layer. Among the most important of  the findings was the royal palace which occupies an area of 10,000 square meters. It contains several rooms for the accommodation of the king, his offices, advisors, guards, servant carriages and horses. The palace has seven gate-ways with doors and columns, a big reception hall of stones seats and a special section for written documents " diwan".

The whole palace was built of carved stone and the ground was covered  with floorboards. The sewage system worked in a fine order under the ground.

From the artistic  and architectural point of view the palace is regarded as one of the biggest and most magnificent among palaces of the ancient Near East, with its unmatched " ambassadors " hall.

The clay tablet whose length does not exceed that of a finger was found in the secretariat hall of the palace in the excavations of 1948 's season.

Many other tablets  concerning  the state of Ugarit foreign relation including  letters exchanged by the kings of Ugarit and their counterparts were also found at the palace " Diwan". Also among the discovered were a legal office to keep contracts undersigned by citizens, a secretariat for account books; a department for goods and a warehouse which  files diplomatic documents.

An oven for baking clay tablets  and the statue of God Baal and the Ivory  Head were also found. Added to these was the grave  of Priest "Rapanou", north to the royal palace. It was built of seven pieces of intersected stones to protect the statute from earthquakes and other natural resources.


Tomader Fateh