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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.

“Nothing in my experience comes close to what Syria offers: Bronze Age, Hellenistic, Roman, Islamic and everything in between,” said Fisher. “But many sites are remote, poorly understood and unexcavated.”

Archaeologists have completed significant work at Dura Europos and Rasafa, two major remote sites, but both still offer huge potential for further investigation and interpretation.

This requires funding, and archeology around the world — let alone the developed world — suffers from the a lack of resources. However, in Syria entrance fees are set very low or are non-existent — 10 Syrian pounds for locals and students and 75 to 150 pounds for foreigners — a measly sum compared to the entrance fee for Petra in Jordan.

The artifacts excavated suffer, too, from the limitations of the country's museum facilities.

“The National Museum in Damascus is a great example of the problem,” said Fisher. “The frescoes from Dura Europos in the museum are amazing — beyond amazing — but they need proper humidity and temperature control. The whole museum needs re-cataloguing; many artifacts lack labels and are disorganized.”

And excavation and preservation techniques can damage valuable items.

“I heard of a terrible practice which was to drill holes in the mosaics, insert rebar or other metal supports, and then hang them on walls in museums. When it rains or the rebar rusts, the mosaics are discolored. I saw this for myself in Damascus in 2007,” he said.

A catalyst for change may now have arrived, however, ironically in the form of tourism. In 2009 the number of visitors to Syrian archaeological sites and museums reached almost 2.5 million people, according to Bassam Jamous, the director of the Directorate General for Antiquities and Museums. This brings with it interest and revenue.

“The attitude has definitely changed,” said the Syrian who asked to remain anonymous. “Ten years ago artifacts were seen only as potential items to trade but this is now changing — people are more likely to take finds to museums and to take an interest in their heritage.”

Esmaiel says his organization has noticed a rising number of Syrians, not just foreign tourists, visiting ruins in the country.

Likewise, capacity is building with increased interest. Originally Damascus University was the only place offering studies in archeology. There are now universities in Aleppo and Idlib offering the same.

The danger of working in Iran, Afghanistan or Iraq is attracting more and more foreign teams to Syria. France and Germany collaborate on a permanent basis with Syria and maintain a presence in Damascus.

Organizations such as Aga Khan are transferring knowledge and using cultural heritage to develop areas of the country. In Aleppo, the organization worked on the citadel. As well as training local architects, they also developed a nearby area of the town and created a public park — giving a positive image of the country’s cultural heritage to the locals.

“Tourism and increased interest are building local interest,” said Esmaiel. “We also want to show how cultural assets can aid development. And to make them valued in and of themselves.”