Connect to share and comment

Calling all Indiana Joneses

Only 3,000 of Syria's estimated 10,000 archaeological sites have been uncovered, though UNESCO fears for those that have.

DAMASCUS, Syria — Barely a week goes by in Syria without a new archaeological find. Witness the recent uncovering of Tel Zeidan, an Ubaid settlement dating from 6,000 to 4,000 B.C. which will give clues as to life in early Mesopotamia, and Hellenistic coins uncovered in a site near Aleppo.

But archaeologists are warning that Syria’s cultural heritage is in danger. Last year UNESCO, the U.N.’s scientific and cultural body, threatened to take away the Old City of Damascus’ cultural heritage status because of a lack of protection accorded the city.

Plans last year to bulldoze several areas of historical importance, in one instance part of the neighborhood of Al-Amara — or Old Damascus — to make way for road widening outside the city, were criticized by locals and international agencies alike. Protests led to a backtracking and an increased dialogue with UNESCO.

The capital's treasures are the more visible face of the problem. Remote ruins such as Zalabiyya, part of a fortress founded by Queen Zenobia and later reinforced as an outpost of the Byzantine Empire, are rarely visited and remain unmonitored. One archaeologist said he’d heard that the walls had been used to provide ballast for the railway to Deir Ez-Zor.

“We are very weak at preserving our heritage,” said one Syrian working in the area who asked to remain anonymous. “There is a lack of expertise and understanding and, until recently, a lack of interest which has put us behind other countries in the region, such as Egypt and Jordan.”

While some sites suffer from a lack of visitors and corresponding attention, others suffer from the opposite. Palmyra, a Roman city and the best-known of Syria’s sites, is entirely open, and  visitors are allowed to clamber all over the ruins. At Apamea, another Roman site with a lengthy colonnaded street, local touts offer to sell pieces of the ruins.

“This is a problem: there are no custodians or curators at these places; just a man in a hut to collect the small entrance fee,” said Greg Fisher, assistant professor of Greek and Roman Studies at Ottowa University in Canada who has conducted extensive field research in Syria. This allows for the mistreatment and theft of any artifacts left lying on the site, he added.

Neglect aside, the lack of know-how and modern excavation techniques means much of the work relies on collaborations between Syrian and foreign archaeologists.

“Local conservation efforts are hampered by the level of technology,” said Fisher.

But, said Ali Esmaiel, CEO of Aga Khan Cultural Services in Syria, an organization which has renovated three sites in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, “The transfer of knowledge is essential for Syria.”

He added: “There is also a need to follow-up — to make sure sites are discovered; when discovered that they are excavated; and when excavated, that they are preserved.”

A lack of capacity for excavation is another frequent grumble. But in this, the country is not solely to blame. Part of the difficulty for Syria stems from the sheer number of sites in the country. The Directorate of Antiquities — a section of the Ministry of Culture — estimates there are over 10,000, of which only 3,000 have been discovered.

For a country with pressing issues from geopolitics to a rising population, archaeological work is not a high priority.