In Idlib’s ancient Dead Cities, a few try to stem the tide of destruction

AMMAN: A regime rocket tore through the outer wall of an Idlib antiquities museum in the southern countryside on Monday

AMMAN: A regime rocket tore through the outer wall of an Idlib antiquities museum in the southern countryside on Monday, the most recent attack on the northwestern province’s ruins and ancient artifacts that residents say is destroying their “past, present and future.”

Though the missile landed inside the museum, dozens of mosaics affixed to the interior walls were “still intact,” Ayman Nabu, director of the Antiquities Center in Free Idlib, the provincial opposition government’s bureau overseeing Idlib’s ruins and artifacts, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

Damage inside the museum after Monday’s attack. Photo courtesy of Ayman Nabu.

“Sandbags were placed in front of the mosaics during the first restoration process to protect them and it appears the strategy was a success since they are still intact,” said Nabu.

In a separate regime airstrike in Idlib city, also on Monday, a regime missile landed between the provincial capital’s national museum and an adjacent traffic circle, partially destroying one of the outer walls of the building. The attack damaged “most of the mosaics” and killed or injured nearly two dozen people, reported pro-opposition Al-Arabi Al-Jadid on Tuesday.

Monday’s attack was the third time the museum was targeted in Maarat a-Numan, a town located approximately 30km south of the provincial capital. Idlib province is controlled by the rebel Victory Army, led by Ahrar a-Sham and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra. The American- and Russian-brokered ceasefire in Syria does not apply to areas under the control of Jabhat a-Nusra.

The worst attack was in June 2015, when regime helicopters dropped two barrel bombs on the museum, causing “major damage” to many of the mosaics and destroying the Ottoman-era mosque located in the interior courtyard of the museum, said Nabu.

Idlib’s Dead Cities

Idlib is home to more than 760 archeological sites and ruins—representing a third of Syria’s total antiquities sites and 51 percent of the country’s archeological mounds, according to Nizar al-Burghul, a lawyer with Lawyers for Justice and native of Kafr Nubl, a town in the southern Idlib countryside just 7km southwest of Maarat a-Numan.

A reported Russian airstrike on Shinshirah on October 1, 2015. Photo courtesy of Nizar al-Burghul.

Al-Burghul is one of five lawyers who co-founded Lawyers for Justice, a local organization that documents damage inflicted on Idlib’s ancient ruins and antiquities, and compiles reports for UNESCO. The group also holds training sessions for other lawyers, members of the local law enforcement and university graduates to teach Syrians how to document and report damage.

Of the more than 760 sites in Idlib, “490 have been recorded as damaged in one way or another,” said al-Burghul.

Many of these antiquities sites are part of the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, also known as the Dead Cities, which make up eight archeological parks located throughout Idlib and adjacent northwest Aleppo province. In mid-June 2011, the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria were added to the official list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The parks contain 40 village sites built between the 1st and 7th centuries that “provide a coherent and exceptionally broad insight into rural and village lifestyles in late Antiquity and the Byzantine Period.”

The village ruins are “also an exceptional illustration of the development of Christianity in the East, in village communities,” according to the official description on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site List.

Because the villages were abandoned in the 8th to 10th centuries, the sites “retain a large part of their original monuments and buildings, in a remarkable state of preservation,” according to UNESCO’s website.

The damage to the Shinshirah site. Photo courtesy of Nizar al-Burghul.

The sites’ proximity to embattled areas, bombardments, looting and internally displaced Syrians setting up camp amidst the ruins are taking its toll on this “remarkable state of preservation.”

Several of the sites are near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey. Supplies to armed combatants coming over the border have periodically been stored in warehouses erected inside the archaeological parks. Sporadic military buildups and firefights have damaged some of the ruins, according to a report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science which was last updated in February 2016.

The village cluster closest to al-Burghul’s home in Kafr Nubl is called the Jabal a-Zawiya Park. It includes the two ancient towns of Shinshirah and Serjilla, both of which have the “biggest place” in his heart.

“I spent a lot of time and some of the best moments of my life at this site with my family and friends since my childhood and all the way up until the beginning of the revolution,” said al-Burghul, from Lawyers for Justice.

The ruins at Shinshirah, “one of the most important archeological sites from the Byzantine period” and made up of around 150 stone houses, have been hit several times with artillery shelling. Russian airstrikes “destroyed large swaths of the site and caused major damage,” said al-Burghul.

Displaced Syrians fleeing fighting and bombardment in Aleppo and elsewhere in Idlib have also used the site as shelter, breaking up some of the larger stones and keeping their livestock in ancient cemetery plots, says al-Burghul.

“I feel great sadness that this site was destroyed—to me it is tantamount to the destruction of the past, the present and the future.”