Location and description
The governorate of Idlib is located in northwest Syria, and Idlib city is its capital. This region is known for embracing a large number of ancient monuments and archaeological sites that date back to different periods, from the Prehistoric Period to the Medieval period. There are more than 800 archaeological sites according to the archive of the Department of Antiquities. Some of the most important sites are Ebla, Tell El-Kerkh, Tell Al Mastuma, Tel Afis and the Dead Cities, which is a World Heritage Site. There are two archeological museums in this province, and they are the Maarat Al-Noman Museum and the Idlib Museum.
The Idlib Museum was inaugurated in September 1989. It is located at the eastern entrance of Idlib city, and it occupies an area of more than 5000 m². The museum is divided into two parts: the main building and the garden section where most of the architectural elements, such as mosaics, capitals, lintels, sarcophagi, and others are displayed. The Idlib Museum building is a two-story building that consists of several galleries. In the ground floor, there are three galleries. The first gallery is for the popular traditions and it displays two different ovens for the handicrafts of glass and pottery. The second gallery is the Islamic Antiquities Hall and it includes a very rich collection of Islamic gold and bronze coins that date back to the Umayyad, Abbasid, Mamluk, Ayyubid, and Ottoman periods. In this gallery, there are two significant hordes of coins: the Ottoman horde of solid gold that was found in the village of Klli in the region of Harim in 1990 and the silver horde that was discovered in 1999 in Tell el-Fakhar. The third gallery contains the Roman and Byzantine collections that consist of glasses, bronze and copper objects. Roman, Byzantine, and Greek coins (Alexander the Great), are also on display. The floor of the third gallery is decorated with Byzantine mosaics that feature different animals, and architectural and botanical elements.
In the first floor there are two galleries, the first one has the most important archaeological discoveries in the region; the artifacts of Ebla. The second gallery is known as the “Hall of Diversity” and it displays archaeological finds from nearby regions such as Tell Deinit, Tell Afis, Tell Ṭokan and Tell khan Cheikhon. These objects date back to a period that ranges from the 3rd millennium BC until the Islamic period. The last gallery is called “Almezanie” room where you can find objects from Tell al-Mastouma and Tell ‘Ain el-Kerkh and they date back to the 7th millennium BC.
The museum’s building contains underground storage that consist of 6 rooms,
d each of these rooms stores a great number of objects. Two of these rooms was dedicated to the artifacts discovered at the archaeological site of Ebla (one is for the cuneiform tablets and the other room is for different archaeological objects). The rest of the rooms contain archaeological artifacts fr
om different sites. These storages were organized based on the material of the objects; stones room, pottery room, …etc.
Idlib National Museum between 2011-2015
At the beginning of the uprising in Syria in 2011, the city of Idlib witnessed numerous protests against the regime. But the continued oppression by the Syrian regime forced the protesters to leave the city and to go to neighboring villages and cities, which were mostly under the control of the armed opposition. As a result, the regime was able to take control of the entire city until 2015.
In 2012, the staff at the Idlib Museum, as directed by the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), worked on the implementation of a plan to protect the archaeological collections at the Museum. The decision was made to preserve all the artifacts within the museum, more specifically, within the storages of the underground floor. According to the information we received, the artifacts that were displayed in the exhibition halls were packed and distributed to the storages on the ground floor to be protected. Objects of great significance were placed in the same room where the cuneiform tablets were kept, and the remaining collection was distributed to the rest of the storages. The doors were tightly sealed before a wall of cinderblock was constructed to hide the locations of these doors. The passages to the storage were filled with sand at a height of over 1 m. Then all external openings of doors and windows were closed and concealed to prevent access to the storages that held over 15,000 artifacts of different periods. It should be noted here that the same plan was implemented in Hama Museum. In other museums, the significant and rare items were transferred to the Central Bank, and the exhibition halls were emptied, so that the artifacts were stored in storages, but the doors were not concealed.
It is difficult to assess the efficiency and competence of the implemented plan to protect and secure the artifacts of the Idlib Museum. However, there were few gaps in the plan that inflected different types of damage to the collection. First, the climate control of the storages was poorly handled, and this resulted with high levels of temperature and humidity. On the one hand, sealing and concealing the openings of the storages for more than three years, significantly increased the humidity level in the storages. On the other, humidity levels exacerbated even more after the passages to the storages were filled with sand as sand retains moisture.
Second, the protection plan should have been confidentially implemented in order to ensure that the objects will be actually protected from looting. But in reality, local visitors to the museum and most of its staff were aware of the nature of the existing collection and where it was stored. Therefore, the location of the storages and their openings was prone to be easily discovered and looted by looters. Another issue was the intensity of the fight in the region. Naturally, it was almost impossible for the museum’s building to withstand the bombing, therefore, the artifacts were exposed to damage and destruction whenever the building was targeted.
Idlib National Museum after 2015
Although the surrounding countryside of Idlib was under the control of the opposition, the city of Idlib remained under the control of the regime until 2015. At the beginning of 2015, the opposition forces began to attack the city, and eventually, they were able to control it in March 2015. Given the location of the museum on the eastern entrance of the city, it became part of the frontline of the fight in the city. The ongoing battles in the city caused severe damage to the building and to the collections of the museum. The worst was the partial collapse of the eastern wall of the museum after it was bombarded by military aircraft, which revealed the contents of the storages. More specifically, the collapsed wall was a new wall that was built to hide a garage that contained a door leading to the storages.
The members of the team of the Idlib Antiquities Center, and from the first day, tried to communicate with the group controlling the museum in order to reach an agreement that neutralize the museum building. Based on the observations and the information that we received from our team inside Syria, it is believed that between March 28 and April 4, 2015, no one entered the storages, and until that date, it was permitted to enter the museum. Between 7 and 8 April, the museum was put under tight security, and everyone was prohibited from entering the museum. It is believed that it was during that period when the location of the storages was discovered, and members of the armed groups gained access to it. The storages were probably accessed through the exterior door located in the eastern wall of the storages (the same door that was revealed after bombing the museum). The situation remained the same for almost two weeks, until April 22. But during that period, the team of the Idlib Antiquities Center was able to visit the museum in spite of the imposed ban to access the museum by the group that controlled it. For more than two years, it was prohibited to approach or enter the museum. The designated authorities in the city were incapable of reaching an agreement to hand the museum over to a civilian body that can actually protect and preserve it.
By the beginning of 2017, the military presence inside the museum or around it gradually disappeared, and eventually, the museum was abandoned, and it was turned into a rest area for workers and drivers. Even then, the team of the Idlib Antiquities Center was prohibited from entering the museum to assess its condition, for unknown reason. Later, the decision was made to hand the museum over to a specific group to protect it, but this group could not complete its mission successfully. In February 2018, the Idlib Antiquities Center became in charge of the Idlib Museum. At that point, SIMAT collaborated with the Idlib Antiquities Center in order to deliver the necessary measures to safeguard and reorganize the museum, which started with setting up a museum inventory committee. The committee consisted of a number of civil and legal personnel from the city of Idlib, in addition to members from SIMAT. A preliminary report prepared by the committee on the condition of the museum revealed that the building of the museum had been heavily damaged due to the bombardment, and that the museum’ storages were in a deteriorating condition due to moisture and water leakage. The report also indicated that most of the cabinets and drawers in the storages where the artifacts were kept were opened or were lying on the floor, and that unfortunately, a considerable number of artifacts was missing. Generally, the committee noted that the storages of the tablets and ceramic and stone objects had been vandalized, and that the storage of the tablets was not securely sealed. A considerable number of other artifacts was missing, and the environmental conditions of the storages were not suitable for storing archaeological artifacts, especially in terms of humidity levels. To make matters worse, water was leaking into one of the storages.
The project and the objectives
Despite the damage and the looting of the Idlib Museum, the storages still contained many artifacts, including a large number of cuneiform tablets. The museum seems to have lost the most valuable artifacts of golden jewelry, coins and statues, but there are still a lot of historically and artistically significant artifacts that need to be properly protected and preserved. After consulting with many specialists and interested parties, SIMAT, in collaboration with the team of the Idlib Antiquities Center, decided to implement a project to protect the remaining archaeological objects in the storages by rehabilitating them. The work on the Idlib Museum project began in April 2018 and it lasted until June 2019. The work is still underway to finalize the database of the museum’s artifacts that have been lost/stolen from the museum, which will be discussed below.
The project aimed to restore the building of the museum and to rehabilitate its infrastructure, and to tightly secure the building of the museum, by enforcing its exterior walls, doors and other outlets leading to the museum. Second, it aimed to assess the condition of the artifacts and to identify the urgently needed conservation and restoration measures. Third, this project was designed to identify the existing museum collections and the missing artifacts, and to rehabilitate and secure the storages properly. Finally, this project aimed at preparing a list of the missing artifacts that will be distributed among the competent authorities in order to identify the missing object, track them, and hopefully, recover them in the future.
Project implementation stages
The work in the museum was divided into the following stages in order to deliver an organized and effective intervention that can actually mitigate the damage to the museum and its artifacts:
- First: securing the museum building and introducing the necessary changes and equipment to the storages in order to start the salvage and documentation processes.
- Second: salvage and document the cuneiform tablets.
- Third: salvage and document the icons.
- Fourth: document the rest of the artifacts (pottery, stone, glass and metal).
The storages in the Idlib Museum included 6 different rooms, which we numbered from 1 to 6, with the most important storage is the room number 1 that contained the cuneiform tablets. After 2012, many cabinets and many artifacts were preserved in this room. Room # 3 (Ebla storage) had many pottery, stone, glass and metal objects that were discovered at the archaeological site of Ebla. Room # 4 was the icons storage.
The decision was made to start working at the cuneiform tablet storage for logistic reasons and mainly due to the importance of these objects.
The first stage:
During this stage, some repairs were made in the building of the museum in order to stop the leakage of water, which was caused by the bombing of the museum in 2015 and 2016. Securing the building of the museum by closing all the holes and collapses in the exterior walls of the building. After that, the work was focused on the storages, and because of the high humidity, the decision was made to work on opening some ports that had been closed previously in 2012. That was necessary to ventilate the storages and to allow the airflow to pass and reduce the humidity. In the meantime, the main entrance to the storages, which was filled and paved in 2012, was opened. The sand layer that was placed in the corridors was then moved. With the completion of these works, the team verified the security of the storages’ doors and installed a new door to the room where the tablets were kept.
The salvage and documentation process started at the cuneiform tablets’ storage, so this room was equipped and supplied with all the needed materials for this process.
The second stage: (the inventory of the cuneiform tablets storage)
In this stage we started to document the storages and to prepare the inventories for the existing objects. The work started from the cuneiform tablets room because it was relatively in a good condition.
The cuneiform tablets storage contained many wooden cabinets. Eight of these cabinets were placed in the middle of the room, and the rest were lined along the walls. This storage had been previously organized by the Italian mission. In order to properly preserve the cuneiform tablets, the Italian mission used nylon bubbles bags and cotton isolate the tablets. But the humidity induced by sealing the storage for a long time, damaged the cuneiforms tablets, especially those that were wrapped with cotton material. In addition to the cuneiform tablets, this room contained some pottery and stone objects that were placed on the back of the cabinets or on the ground.
Before starting the work, we documented the condition of this storage, which seemed unfortunately, vandalized and damaged. The door of the room was broken, and most of the drawers were open or lying on the ground. Some of the artifacts were broken and it seemed that a large number of artifacts was missing.
The documentation work was organized in a way that facilitates retrieving any object easily. A number was given to each cabinet and each drawer. The team was organized into three groups, each group with a specific task. The first group carried out the documentation process, the second group photographed the artifacts, and the third group focused on archiving and preparing the database.
The description and measurements listed for each object in the museum records, which we obtained a copy of, along with the numbers recorded on each artifact in the storage, were transferred to our database. We gave a new inventory number for each piece, and all the damage that had recently occurred was added to the description of the object along with including several pictures for each object. After the completion of the inventory and the documentation process, each object was put in a drawer in the cabinet allocated to it. New materials to better isolate the objects and preserve them were applied.
Initially, the work focused on the cuneiform tablets only, i.e., the other artifacts in this room were not recorded at this stage. This stage focused on rearranging the cabinets and placing the tablets in them. The work progressed as following:
- Cleaning the cabinets, removing the mold and replacing the bubble bags.
- Arranging the registered and unregistered tablets in each cabinet and keeping the unregistered fragments in the same drawer.
- Recording the tablets that were recorded in the museum and giving them new inventory numbers that were written on the pieces with black Chinese ink in addition to the previous museum number. The new numbers were symbolized with the letter (م), so each number is written as following م/1. Then the numbers follow sequentially.
- Beside each tablet we put a small label with the description: the museum number, the new inventory number, the name of the piece and its material, with some additional observations.
- After completing the inventory, each drawer was isolated with a layer of bubble wrap and a sheet of moisture-resistant paper.
- Giving each cabinet and each drawer ID numbers.
- Putting the damaged tablets into a specific box.
- Creating an inventory record that contains background information on each tablet that had been archived.
- Recording all the tablets that have been inventoried and documenting all stages of work with pictures and videos.
- Archiving all these tablets through an electronic database prepared specially for this work. The database includes the information listed in the museum record for each object, besides the new inventory number and the new observations.
The third stage: Inventory the Icons’ Storage
The icons were mainly stored in storage #4. It was a small room that contained metal shelves. The icons were arranged on the shelves, but some of them, especially the large one, were placed directly on the floor. These icons did not have a museum number, which means that they were not registered in the museum’s record, but they had an ID registration number. Most icons were severely damaged due to high humidity and mold growth. Some of them were deliberately destroyed by throwing them on the ground and breaking their wooden bases. Some of these icons completely lost the layer containing the drawings and colors, which left only the wooden bases.
The process of moving the icons from their place to relocate them in another storage (room #1) was challenging and time-consuming due to their vulnerability and fragility. None of these icons was relocated or documented until the humidity was reduced in the storage by natural ventilation. So these icons were not suddenly moved from a wet environment to a dry one. All details have been taken into consideration to maintain their safety and to not aggravate their condition. We moved the icons from room #4 to room #1 to be stored in the cabinets that have been prepared for this purpose. For large icons, new boxes had been especially made for them since they cannot be placed in the cabinets. The relocation and preservation process progressed as following:
- Moving icons by placing them on a flat holder.
- Providing drawers with insulation and protection materials, such as bubble bags and two layers of foam (polyethylene foam), thermally insulated with thickness of 2 cm.
- Fixing the icons by placing a frame of foam around the icon and filling the space between it and the edges of the drawer to prevent any movement while opening or closing the drawer.
- An inventory number was given to each icon, as following: م-أ(1), م for (museum) I for (icon) and serial number starting from 1.
- Collecting the broken plates and the fragments of the icons and putting them in a box.
- Beside each icon we added a label with the basic information about it.
- Separate record was created for the inventories of these icons because they did not have museum numbers.
The fourth stage: Inventory of the other artifacts (Ebla storage)
After completing the documentation of the icons, we started documenting the other artifacts saved in storage #1. This storage contained many small and medium-sized pottery vessels, as well as pottery fragments, pieces of bones and small pieces of stone. The majority of the pieces were lying on the floor. It seemed that they were kept in wooden and plastic boxes on the back of the cabinets, which were thrown to the ground to use the boxes for transferring the cuneiform tablets and other objects by those who looted the museum.
Due to the mess and sabotage of the contents of the storage, many artifacts were destroyed (broken), especially pottery and bone. The worst was that the pieces were not next to each other but randomly scattered on the floor of the storage, which made the process of collecting the fragments of these pieces very difficult. Most of the pieces were without boxes or bags, and without label, so it was not easy to identify and document these objects.
- Giving these artifacts a new inventory number starting from the last number that we gave to the cuneiform tablets (547). We continued the registration on the same cuneiform tablets’ lists.
- We used the same method that we used for the inventory of the cuneiform tablets.
- Beside each object we put a label (identification cards) with the inventory number, museum register number and more information and notes.
- All fragments and broken pieces or separated parts that need to be later repaired were placed in open nylon bags.
- The complete museum objects were preserved in the empty drawers from the cuneiform tablet’s cabinets, after cleaning and isolating them with bubble bags and papers.
- Keeping the fragile objects, especially the bones, in boxes insulated with a layer of foam.
After the completion of this room, we started working on the inventory of pottery and stone objects that were stored in room #5, known as the (Basalt Storage). The same method was used to number and document these pieces.
In October 2018, the salvage and inventory processes were completed. But the photographic documentation did not finish at the same time and it lasted for an additional month. Adding this information to the database and checking its compatibility with the museum record took a longer time, it has not been completed yet. At the moment this report was prepared, the work continues to complete the database and to identify the stolen objects from those still in the museum. This stage is a challenging one because of the loss of many museum numbers, especially that it is so difficult to identify the destroyed pottery and glass objects from those looted.
Project results and Databases
Through this project we were able to identify three different types of hazards that had damaged the museum’s collection. First is humidity that was induced and escalated by sealing the museum’s building for a long time without taking appropriate measures to control it. Second is the repeated bombardment of the museum by the Syrian air force. This had not only led to partial collapses in the museum’s building, but it had also damaged the infrastructure of the building. Accordingly, the water system of the museum was damaged, and it started leaking. Moreover, the interior of the museum was exposed to rainfall. Third comes theft and vandalism of the storages by the groups that controlled the museum.
The storages of the museum were rampaged, by bombardment and by vandalism and looting. Looting happened after one of the former employees of the museum revealed the location of the storages to the groups that were controlling the city. Despite all the efforts made by the local community and the staff of Idlib Antiquities Center to secure and safeguard the artifacts of the Idlib museums, many objects were stolen including some very important objects. Today, a very small collection remans in the museum comparing to what the museum had before 2015.
The tablets: Through this inventory we were able to document the number of the tablets the museum has. Unfortunately, we found only 546 complete tablets of the 2201 complete tablets recorded in the museum register. This means that more than 1550 tablets have been lost or stolen.
This storage was organized and arranged in a sequential and clear way to facilitate easy access to any artifacts at any time. Damaged pieces that need to be repaired or stored were identified and what type of needed intervention was specified and scheduled. The tablets that we could not identify or could not find their numbers, or those with uncertainties, had all been placed in a separate list, (27 tablets). The same method of work had been followed in other storages, such as the stone and pottery storages. As for the objects that were damaged by humidity, especially icons and paintings, we have been delivering appropriate measures to mitigate the damage affecting them. They are currently securely stored until an intervention can be delivered.
Other artifacts: In addition to the cuneiform tablets, the museum record contains 7500 registered pieces. But the number of pieces that we have found through the inventory, which match the museum record does not exceed three thousand pieces. This means that there are about six thousand objects missing or stolen. These pieces include: jewelry, gold and silver coins, terracotta, small statues found at Ebla, cylindrical or flat seals and pottery from Ebla or from other archaeological sites such as Tell El-Karkh, Tell Mastouma, Tell Dyneete and Tell Afis.
Many objects of the collection were accidently uncovered during construction work of roads and buildings, and other objects were confiscated by the authorities. The problem with these objects is that most of them had not been documented, and therefore, it is challenging to provide the INTERPOL with their pictures as we do not have pictures of them. It is difficult to get pictures of them if the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums does not have records for these objects. The rest of the objects were found in the archaeological sites. These objects had been photographed and documented by the missions working onsite once they were discovered. Accordingly, it will be easier to retrieve their pictures and documents in order to prepare a database to be sent to the INTERPOL.
Through our rescue and inventory operation over the past months, we have been able to prepare a detailed database with all the information that we were able to obtain for each artifact found, saved and stored in the storages of the Idlib Museum. This database includes the new inventory number given to each object, followed by the old museum number. The description given to each object along with its dimensions and all the information is based on the museum record. In many cases new additions and observations were added to point out the changes that had happened to each piece, such as cracking, distortion, damage due to humidity or moisture. We have also documented all the new changes that occurred due to the three-year packing, or the sabotage, theft, or bombing.
The work was divided into two parts, the first database was dedicated to the cuneiform tablets, and the second to the rest of the artifacts. The team in Syria finished the database of the cuneiform tablets and it was sent to us at the end of 2018. We started the work on this database to translate it to English and to add more information and pictures. For this section of work, we cooperated with Mr. Alfonso Archi from the Italian mission. Mr. Archi have worked on these tablets for many years. Given the abundant number of images it was agreed to add a reference to the publication of each tablet considering that there are publications on so many tablets by Alfonso Archi and Giovanni Pettinato. These publications include a lot of information and pictures for each tablet.
Several attempts have been made to communicate with the INTERPOL through their website, or with the assistance of some persons who directly interact with them. Unfortunately, we have not been able so far to build a direct contact with them. Therefore, we have not been able to hand over the database of the stolen cuneiforms from the Idlib Museum to the INTERPOL to be added to their database.