A young archaeologist, Moutaz Alshayeb, envisioned working on digs in the desert after he graduated from the University of Damascus three years ago. He never imagined that he’d start his career in a lab piecing together artifacts from heritage sites destroyed in the Syrian conflict.
“When I hear about bombings in the tunnels of the old city of Aleppo I feel devastated,” said Moutaz, referring to the city in northwestern Syria where intense fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad has reduced neighborhoods to rubble. “They are simply crushing our identity and our soul.”
While accounts of the destruction of archaeological sites in Syria are relatively common, few people are aware that in some cases, restoration has already taken place. At other locations, archaeologists are doing their best to stabilize sites and prepare for future reconstruction.
First settled 7,000 years ago, Aleppo is one of almost 746 archaeological sites damaged in the four-year-old Syrian conflict, according to an interactive map released in February by the Syrian Directorate General of Antiques and Museums, the Syrian government agency that oversees ancient artifacts and archaeological digs. (See related article: Hidden Victim of Syria’s Conflict: Historical Heritage.)
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has also warned that the violence in Syria was destroying the country’s rich cultural heritage. Unesco listed six “World Heritage” sites in danger of destruction, from Aleppo—an ancient city full of remnants of its rich history—to the Krac des Chevaliers, a stunning medieval castle near Homs.
Working with University of Damascus, with the Centre des Hautes Etudes de Chaillot in France and with Syrian government agencies that often operate in parallel with rebel-affiliated preservationists, Moutaz is part of a wave of Syrian archeologists and other academics who are doing overtime to document and restore Syria’s history in the midst of the bitter conflict.
The government and Damascus University have been cooperating on documenting and restoring damaged sites since 2012. At the same time, Syrian archeologists and academics sympathetic with Syrian insurgents are working toward the same goal. Since 2012, the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, an independent organization of Syrian and other volunteers inside and outside the country working to protect Syrian heritage releases monthly reports and videos to show the scale of damage, often indirectly casting blame on al-Assad or other forces traditionally unfriendly to preservation.
“Certainly the biggest responsibility lies with the Syrian regime, which has bombed and shelled buildings and archaeological sites,” said Cheikhmous Ali, a Syrian and a student of archaeology at the University of Strasbourg in France who founded the association.
Ali estimated that restoring Aleppo’s demolished legacy would cost $2 billion, an amount that could certainly increase after the full scope of the damage becomes clear once the fighting subsides.
Both government and rebel preservationists are especially concerned about Aleppo, said Maamoun Abdulkarim, who heads the state’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums. Bombs, bullets and other weapons have destroyed more than 135 places of archaeological importance in the city, including an ancient covered market that contained more than 1,000 shops. Since 2012, Aleppo has been a battlefield, with control over the city carved up among groups such as the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, the Syrian government and both Sunni and Shiite jihadists.
Archaeology has been dragged into the conflict in the city. In a now-infamous incident from April 2013, mortar shells and crossfire smashed Aleppo’s 11th century Great Mosque. The Syrian state news agency, Sana, claimed that rebels who controlled the area at the time blew up the mosque’s minaret. Rebels said Syrian tank fire toppled it.
Similarly, in February, the association released a report on the status of the 14th Century Hammam Yalbougha, a historic bathhouse in Aleppo. Islamic Front affiliates nearly destroyed the bathhouse, which scholars have called the grandest in Syria, through tunnel bombing, or detonating explosives packed into a tunnel dug under enemy positions. Reportedly backed by Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Front is not affiliated with the Islamic State but nonetheless seeks to impose Sharia law in Syria. Tunnel bombings can make it hard to pinpoint responsibility for destroying ancient sites.
In December, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported an armed opposition group called Al Jabha Al Shamiya, or the Levant Front, blew up a tunnel packed with explosive under a building full of soldiers in the old city of Aleppo. More than 30 people died. In that incident, the rebels set the explosives.
But government troops also bear part of the responsibility for the destruction of Syria’s heritage. In January, the co-director of the Syrian Heritage Initiative at the American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives, University of Arkansas Professor Jesse Casana, used satellite imagery to show that the Syrian military was using 19 archaeological sites to garrison troops putting those sites in harm’s way. Other factions are doing the same, Casana said.
Syrian troops are damaging the ancient city of Palmyra, which dates to the second millennium BC, as they use to bulldozers to dig trenches, erect dirt mounds and build other defenses, said Ali.
Abdulkarim didn’t want to comment on the military actions, saying that he is an academic who voluntarily accepted to run the directorate two years ago. He said he had twice tried to resign his position and return to Damascus University, where he taught previously for 30 years.
“Running this institution for two years during the war is the equivalent to 15 years before it,” he said. “It is mentally and physically exhausting.”
Still, Abdulkarim and other academics working on behalf of the Syrian government have scored some successes. In 2013, a mortar shell struck the facade of the Damascene Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, damaging a large mosaic and that is widely held as one of the greatest pieces of Islamic Art. “Luckily, we were able to save it this time,” said Motaz. Government-affiliated academics have also braved rebel-held zones to preserve artifacts.
Villagers in Brhlia outside Damascus found a mosaic panel amid the rubble of a battle zone a few years ago. Maher Jbaai, a government mosaic restoration specialist, rushed to the scene. “We sought to transfer the panel to Damascus and tried to convince the people there not to sell it, although this area is no longer under regime control,” he said. “We succeeded.”
The directorate is now planning an ambitious restoration of the town of Maloula, home of important Greek Christian monasteries that date to the Byzantine period. The regime controls the town after a pitched battle in the region. Archaeological students in a joint program between Damascus University and Centre des Hautes Etudes de Chaillot in Paris are slated to carry out the work.
Rama Daher, a 27-year-old master’s degree student in the joint program visited Maloula soon after the government secured the town in the summer. She and other students took measurements and are now preparing a rebuilding plan.
“In general, the city is still standing,” said Daher. “There is a long way to go for restoration there. What can be done now are interim steps to keep the city standing until the situation stabilizes.”
Daher admitted it was hard to be hopeful. “Today we do not know if what we’re renovating won’t be destroyed soon again.”