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As our cultural heritage in Syria hemorrhages, Villagers work to restore it

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Franklin Lamb, Qalamoun Mountains, Syria

Reports continue nearly daily of yet more damage to our archeological treasure here in Syria. A few examples include the recent ISIS destruction at Tal Ajaja, one of Syria's most important Assyrian-era sites. "More than 40 percent of Tal Ajaja was destroyed or ravaged by IS recently", according to Khaled Ahmo, the Director of the Antiquities in Hasakeh.

[Photo: Tal Ajaja, Syria's DGAM]

Tal Ajaja
Tal Ajaja
(Image by Syria’s Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM),)
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This year at Tal Ajaja, ISIS discovered previously unknown millennia-old statues and cuneiform tablets, which they promptly sold while destroying others until they were driven out of Tal Ajaja six months ago by Kurdish fighters and into Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province. Local citizens have reported to this observer that fragments of broken artifacts are strewn throughout the desecrated area and large holes dug by looters pockmark the area.'

Under the direction of the Syria's Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), most of the known treasures of Tal Ajaja, discovered in the 19th century, had long been removed and placed in safe places. Between 2014 and 2015, Syria' DGAM moved some 300,000 objects and thousands of manuscripts from across Syria into safe storage, including many in Damascus. But the jihadists, as well as local looters, dug up artifacts that archeologists had not yet uncovered, destroying or trafficking priceless pieces. According to DGAM's Maamoun Abdel Karim, "In two or three months, ISIS wiped out what would have required 50 years of archeological excavations."

More recent damage was done last month, (7/13/2016), to the National Museum of Aleppo by militia fired missiles. The Museum sustained lesser damage in 2014, also from missiles fired from east Aleppo. This time, parts of the Museum's roof have been destroyed and there is also major structural damage to the Museum's exterior doors, the offices of employee & Museum curators, destruction of generators, as well as parts of the Museum's outer fence.

A third major recent loss, also in Aleppo, occurred this past May at the Syrian monastery dedicated to St Simeon Stylites (from the Greek word for pillar, "style") where the 5th century monk inaugurated the practice of religious hermits living on top of pillars in contemplation and prayer. St Simeon, a serious recluse, is said to have spent 47 years in prayer perched on various pillars. The main one of which has now been completely destroyed while the facade of the Monastery now has a huge hole blown into it. The original pillar on which St Simeon lived, which had been preserved on a pedestal in the sanctuary of the church, has been toppled. For many centuries, St. Simeon Monastery has been a main tourist attraction and was added to UNESCO's protective World Heritage List in June of 2011 just after the start of the Syrian conflict. Ever since it has been under the control of various pro and anti-government factions.

In addition to the tragic damage at St Simeon, during mid-July 2016, an inspection field visit in the Hasaka region by DGAM documented yet more damage by ISIS in the area to the south of the city of Hasaka on the eastern bank of Lake Dam hill. In the western and northern areas tunnels approximately twenty meters long were dug by ISIS and their project resulted in the destruction of artifacts from the 7th century BC Babylonian period. Also gutted are irreplaceable buildings dating to the Assyrian period of the second century BC.

Other examples of recent damage at Syrian archaeological sites include the Shinsharain Jabal Zawiya, a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site (Dead Cities) which was hit by an airstrike around the time that a mortar exploded on the Sham Moon restaurant in the Christian quarter of Bab Touma in the Old City of Damascus. Recent damage has also been inflicted on the Byzantine site of Qalaat Semaan, Aleppo Governorate, as well as two mosques in al-Bara, Idlib Governorate. Recently damage was sustained at al-Iman Mosque in Quriyah, Deir ez Zor Governorate and a mosque and Sufi tomb in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate. An airstrike has damaged al-Foqani Mosque in Hbit, Idlib Governorate and last month five mosques in Aleppo Governorate were damaged. In addition it has been reported that the al-Kabir Mosque in Urum al-Kubra has recently been damaged by shelling from east Aleppo and also at the Byzantine site of Qalaat Semaan, Aleppo Governorate, as well as at two mosques in al-Bara, Idlib Governorate. Also recently damaged is al-Iman Mosque in Quriyah, Deir ez Zor Governorate. Just this past month three more mosques in Aleppo, as well as St. Demetrius Church sustained war damage.

On and on Syria's heritage bleeds along with her people.

As tragic as the growing list of damage to our cultural heritage sites which cannot be gainsaid is, this observer has witnessed again this past week stunning villager-initiated restoration work here in Syria. This time perhaps in the least likely area of Syria I might have thought to even consider, and have not previously visited during nearly three years traveling around Syria and examining damage at cultural heritage sites.

The Qalamoun mountains are a key strategic area for both rebel supplies and the movement of weapons into Lebanon. Frankly, it's an area I had not thought to even consider during my research on this subject and my stumbling on it happened by chance. The Qalamoun area saw fierce fighting from mid-November 2013, with air strikes on the village of Qara in an attempt by the Syrian Army to cut rebel supply lines to Damascus from Lebanon. It essentially ended in late April, 2014 when rebels in Zabadani surrendered and the Syrian Army and its allies occupied the town, thus taking the last rebel stronghold in the Qalamoun region up to the Lebanese border. A major strategic victory for the Syrian government and her allies.

The critical battles in the ancient Qalamoun mountain area included the villages of Yabroud, al-Jarajir, northwest of Yabroud, Qamieh, al-Kornish areas surrounding Yabroud , An-Nabk , Rima, Deir Attiyeh, Sahel, the al-Arid road, Al-Sarkha Jibbeh and Jbaadin as well as Maaloula among other villages.

Our cultural heritage sustained damage in each of these Qalamoun area villages to varying degrees. But what this observer deems truly remarkable, while not widely known, is how the local citizenry, ignoring religion and sectarianism or whether one side on another caused the damage to Mosques or Churches or other sites, responded once the fighting stopped. Without recrimination villagers took the initiative and in a spectacular fashion have now largely restored these damaged sites.

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Since 2013, Professor Franklin P. Lamb has traveled extensively throughout Syria. His primary focus has been to document, photograph, research and hopefully help preserve the vast and irreplaceable archaeological sites and artifacts in (more...)

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