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.
“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.”