The cultural cost of conflict: Syria’s ancient treasures in ruins

The cultural cost of conflict: Syria’s ancient treasures in ruins
By Euronews
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Amid falling bombs and heavy gunfire, in the heat of battle where the priority is staying alive, there is little time to deal with the protection of cultural monuments. Centuries-old castles regain their original functions as hiding places and fortresses; the ruins of ancient cities are pounded by the tracks of tanks; museums get looted for their treasures. It is already known that more than 100,000 people have died in the civil war which started more than two years ago, but little is said about whether the priceless relics of the past, Syria’s cultural heritage, will survive the fighting.

Balázs Major, an oriental archaeology professor at Hungary’s Pázmány Péter Catholic University, has been researching in Syria for 15 years. Among his current tasks is exploring the site of Margat, one of the biggest medieval Knights’ Castles in the Middle East, in his role as head of the Syrian-Hungarian Archaeological Mission. Euronews asked him about the future of his team’s work under the present circumstances.

Margat, one of the biggest Crusade castles in the Middle-East

When the battles started in March 2011, one of the two main conflict zones of the war was just next to Baniyas, the village near to Margat, says Major, who headed the team excavating the site. He gained permission to excavate there in 2006 thanks to his previous experience in Syria. “I have been doing field work in the country for 15 years. If you have to explore unknown ruins in an area, where the vegetation is thick, there is no Western technology that can replace the field work. During this stage you have to ask total strangers to let you into their gardens, ask if they found anything in the ground, if they know about an ancient cistern in the area or seen any old, carved stones. I used to say that this form of exploration on the Syrian coastline is only 50% archaeology and 50% psychology.” This is how he explored the small mountain villages year after year, day and night.

Then came the great mandate: “When the Syrian government opened Margat castle for exploration and chose us to do the work, at first we hardly dared to undertake this exploration, which carries with it a huge responsability. But to work there is a great honour and a professional challenge.”

Sensational findings

The Hungarian team revealed a huge fresco in the castle chapel, depicting hell. The painting – a scientific sensation – is located next to the sanctuary, which in itself is unusual, not to mention that in the centre of the painting itself a latin bishop is depicted sitting naked in a cauldron, surrounded by fire and four demons.

Major considers it more significant still that – thanks to their work – there is a Crusade-era fortress in the Middle East about which we have accurate information concerning its use in ancient times. „We managed to retrace the fortress’s main construction periods, and we discovered a lot of findings, which carry important information about the life of the ancient inhabitants. All this was brought out by an inter- and multi-disciplinary team; besides the archeologists, we worked together with builders, geophysicists, archeozoologists and conversationists. All the nearly 120 researchers and university students who came to Margat over the past years, worked as volunteers. I consider it also a great achievement that the work in Margat is not only a research, but also an educational activity, where dozens of Hungarian and Syrian students come, learn and work together and from each other.”

They didn’t stop because of the war

The team didn’t stop the excavation directly because of the war: „We made three missions per year and, while in the summer of 2011 140 missions had already left the country, we stayed there with Syrian colleagues and students.

“That summer there were 45 members of our team and we dug along, and we continued in October with a smaller team. The main working season is, of course, summer when we don’t have to worry about the rain, and it is also practical, because the university teachers and students have more time then. We use the spring break for field work and material analysis.”

Major still goes back to work on the excavation field in Syria, but after the conflict escalated, he now goes alone.

During the work, the situation was seldom critical, but on one occasion, while Major was feeding the cat in the fortress, four unknown armed soldiers showed up in front of the gate. When they demanded the archeologist show his papers, he told them that he had been working there for years, but had never seen them before. He even invited them on a tour of the site if they wished. After this, they left.

Margat’s surroundings and coastline were among the most peaceful areas of Syria before the fighting broke out. The future of the Syrian-Hungarian Mission depends largely on whether they will be welcomed back in such dangerous circumstances, and whether they will have enough resources to continue their work.
“Every member of the team loves Syria; everyone is keen to go back. They don’t stop calling and asking me whether they can come with me again,” says Balázs Major, who thinks that the castle is safe as long as the fighting doesn’t spread to the coastline.

Mosaics collected with bulldozers

In countless other places in the world, such as in Afghanistan and in Mali, Islamic extremists have destroyed statues and ancient manuscripts. Asked if this is something that risks happening in Syria if an area becomes occupied by extreme groups, Major says that although generally Syrians are very open-minded and culture-loving people, the destruction of ancient artefacts can always happen.

„ We know about cases when a monument was damaged because of battles nearby or even inside the sites, and it is also the case that when an area lacks state control, museums and sites of excavation do get looted. The authorities were already fighting against treasure-hunters before the conflict, which is not surprising as we’re in, culturally, the richest area of the Middle-East,” says Major. “Poverty and unemployment have increased dramatically because of the war, and I’ve heard about cases where bulldozers were searching the ruins for treasures. It happened that during our night field trip, we ran into armed men.”

Image gallery with the photos taken by the Syrian-Hungarian Archeological Mission

  • Eastern side of the fortress during excavation

  • Margat from South

  • Mensuration of the hill of the fortress

  • Working on the medieval paintings

  • Medieval dishes

  • Scene from the hell

  • The fortress is beautifully situated

  • Computer-animated reconstruction of the site

  • The cat of the mission


World heritage in danger

On June 25, UNESCO declared that World Heritage Sites in Syria were endangered, in order to raise awareness of the threat the armed conflict presents to such monuments. Major thinks that only the sites not found in the fighting zone are safe. The archeologist says that the monuments and excavation sites are afflicted not only by the „official” army’s moves, but also the several militias and the armed groups lead by different warlords, not to mention lone looters.

And when it is a question of life or death, there are very few people who care about whether the world-famous citadel of Aleppo is under fire.

Speaking of Aleppo, the most serious fighting in Syria has taken place here. It is not easy to find an intact building in one of the world’s oldest inhabited settlements, where the characteristics of Arabian architecture are unique. The ancient city has been ruined by heavy shelling: its Great Mosque’s 12th century minaret crumbled to dust in April.

Government says the rebels are responsible for the destruction


Rebels say the regime is behind the fall of the minaret

Last October, Aleppo’s medieval market, the largest indoor marketplace in the world, suffered serious damage during clashes between the Syrian army and anti-Assad rebels.

The war has spread to Damascus, called Sham in ancient times: shelling became a daily occurrence, and several parts of the beautiful ancient city have been destroyed. The government blames the rebels for the devastation of Syria’s cultural heritage, while opposition forces throw the guilt right back at the government.

Video about the ancient city of Damascus in its full splendour

The ancient city of Palmyra, known as the Bride of the Desert, which boasts Roman ruins and was among the most visited tourist sites in Syria, has also been heavily damaged in the war. Several statues and wall carvings were damaged when government tanks marched through the grounds, while the museum was looted and the citadel – used as military camp – also suffered badly.


Video about Palmyra

The ancient city of Bosra was also damaged under the army’s tank tracks.

The 12th century Crusader’s fortress, the so-called Saladin Castle is safe for now, but with its proximity to the fighting, it has also been added to the list of endangered monuments.
Another well-known Crusader’s castle, the almost 1,000-year-old Krak des Chevaliers has also fallen victim to the conflict: it was seriously damaged in July 2012 in a firefight between insurgents using the castle as a military base, and the government forces trying to expel them from the castle. The army fired heavy artillery at the road leading to the castle, but the rebels’ weapons also caused serious damage.

Battles around the castle of Krak


Balázs Major
Birth: June 6, 1975



2003-2008. Cardiff University, School of History and Archaeology – PhD
1999-2000. Universtiy of Damascus, Archeological Department
1993- 2004. ELTE BTK History Institution
1996-2003. ELTE BTK Archeological Institution- Mediaval Archelogical Faculty
1993-2000. ELTE BTK Arabic and Semitic Studies Department

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