By: Ammar Kannawi
Translated by: Laura Abaza
The Ancient Villages in the Limestone Massif, also known as “the Dead Cities” are a group of archaeological sites located in the North-Western Syria. These archeological ancient villages were most distinguished by the preserved architectural and urban complexes which formed agricultural countryside villages dating back to the Roman and Byzantine periods.
The exceptional importance of these villages comes from that they gradually got abandoned in the 8th century A.D to become a semi-empty limestone mass from housing for several following centuries and thus preserved their old form without the presence of fundamental changes in the buildings plans, shapes and features. Perhaps the construction technique and the quality of the used stone helped to preserve this good condition in addition to the desertion process.
These villages extend over a wide area in Northwestern Syria, between the Turkish borders in the North and the city of Apamea in the South, with a length of approximately 100 km and a width of 20 km. They are distributed over a group of plateaus and mountains; Mount Simeon, Mount Ḥalaqa, Mount Bārīshā, Mount Aʻlā, Mount Duwaili, Mount Al-Wastani and Mount Zāwiya. The number of ancient villages discovered in these mountains is more than 700 villages which differ in terms of the level of conservation. Some of them still maintain their old plans and the facades of their buildings are still preserved on the level of several floors.
We aim in this report to shed the light on the current state of the archaeological villages located within three of the archaeological parks registered on the World Heritage List, which are parks no. /4-5-6/. This work is to continue what we started before when we documented the archaeological park of Mount Al-Wastani, park no. /8/ which ended in 2019, and a scientific report documenting the state of the park was published on the Syrians for Heritage association’s website – SIMAT.
In this report, we will highlight the current state of archaeological sites during the years of conflict and will monitor the changes and damages that occurred during recent years from the beginning of the conflict until the first half of year 2020. Our researches and studies will be based on taking field tours, visiting the archaeological sites and documenting damages through photography and recording the testimonies of the local community to know all the variables and the causes behind them.
This report presents a detailed visualization of the current state of the archaeological park in Mount Aʻlā in order to have a full documentation of this park and its villages and a clear vision for their general safety conditions. At later stage, we aim to provide a general documentation for the current state of the archaeological villages located within the archaeological parks in Mount Zāwiya /Parks no. 5-6/ in two separate reports. We will mainly depend on the field tours and photographic documentation that we carried out until the end of 2019 in addition to some of the documentation work that we carried out at the beginning of 2020. We won’t be able to obtain new data or take any tour anymore because of the security risks and the lack of safety conditions in visiting these sites that became military and engagement/clash areas and starting from the beginning of 2020, civil parties/actors are prohibited to organize tours or to take photographs.
Documenting the Archaeological Park in the Mount Aʻlā project has been executed under the scientific supervision of Dr. Abdalrazzaq Moaz and was funded by the Gerda Hankel Foundation – Germany.
- Definition of Archaeological Parks
For more information about the archaeological parks listed on the World Heritage List, check the registration file for the UNESCO List of Cultural Heritage in Arabic, which was translated by Lina Kotifan – January 2009.
Due to the authenticity of these archaeological villages and the exceptional state of its conservation, some of these sites have been inscribed on the World Heritage List and have been approved in accordance with the criteria for registration, no. III, IV and V. There are 40 ancient villages distributed among 8 archeological parks. Each park includes several villages, which are as follows:
- The Documentation Work of Archaeological Sites
The Ancient Villages in the Limestone Massif were the focus of attention for researchers and observers of the Syrian antiquities throughout the period of the armed conflict, because the region was exposed to bombing and demographic changes with every movement of displacement in Syria, where Idlib region became an area to accommodate the displaced population coming from all the Syrian cities.
In addition to the above, there was also the absence of the official archaeological authorities concerned with documenting and preserving heritage sites. Therefore, the researchers depended in documenting the current reality on the media/press and social media reports.
There were no scientific reports carried out by specialized archeologists but there were reports in some cases produced by newly established local community organizations concerned with heritage affairs. Despite previous documentation work, the condition of these sites needs to be updated continuously in order to convey their real state especially because of the political and conflict variables on the ground that make it necessary for us to update the evidence and information about those sites periodically for monitoring purposes.
This study and documentation work were executed by the Idlib Antiquities Center team members:
Ayman al-Nabo – Hassan Ismail – Munir Al-Kaskas – Abdul Salam Al-Hamo – Ibrahim Kuntar
- An Overview of the Current State of Archaeological Parks in the Limestone Massif Villages
The long war consequences were reflected on the archaeological sites reality in Northwestern Syria, including the ancient villages in the Limestone Massif, and left negative effects that cannot be ignored in terms of damages and vandalism. These effects were result of many factors such as insecurity, the absence of an effective law to protect antiquities in addition to a huge population pressure in a limited geographical area and the frequent migration movement of the inhabitants, who found in the archaeological sites a safe and cheap places to escape from the war. This reality affected and resulted in severe damages to the archaeological sites, varying from one location to another. Despite many calls to protect antiquities and to neutralize heritage from the conflict, only few calls were heard.
Several studies and previous reports showed the damages and violations on the archaeological villages in general, but due to the war continuation, the current reality and the accompanying negative changes, especially in terms of population pressure and the increased number of displaced people to the area. It has become necessary to update the previous documentation work and damages reports. Especially the archaeological sites registered on the World Heritage List that have an exceptional value. It is also important to convey the actual situation of these sites, document their archaeological state and the changes that occurred. All of that will help to develop strategies for emergency intervention in some cases and to assess the damages.
All images used in this report are owned by the Idlib Antiquities Center, except of some photos which were identified and approved for publication by their owners.
The main violation acts that affected the archaeological sites were identified as the following:
- Clashes and Bombing
Some archaeological sites have turned into battlefields due to the violent clashes taking place in the areas where the archaeological sites are located, which led to the destruction of historical buildings and valuable archaeological castles. The situation has become more dangerous in certain areas, especially in Mount Zāwiya, which becomes a clash area between the Syrian regime forces and opposition groups at the beginning of this year, and many archaeological sites in Mount Zāwiya have been bombed in recent battles such as Khirbet Hass, Serjilla and Al-Bara.
Aerial bombing – Serjilla 2020
- Illegal Excavations
Due to the absence of the responsible government institutions and archaeological authorities in some areas, some archaeological sites have been subjected to serious
Secret exploration – Jerade 2019
violations and fierce excavations attempts. With the increase in population pressure
in the surroundings of the archaeological sites, the frequency of secret excavation work increased and began spreading in some sites for the first time despite their survival throughout the previous years of war.
- Urban Encroachments
Some people take advantage of the chaos and the difficulty in controlling irregularities in infringing random construction on archaeological sites and protection areas due to the absence of the Antiquities Law. People do not receive any resistance or prevention from the local community, unlike secret excavation and sabotage actions. The greater the population pressure, the more construction works within the archaeological sites to secure temporary or permanent housing appear.
Modern residential building – Bshilla 2015
- Military Presence in the Archaeological Sites
The army is stationed in a number of archaeological sites, and there is no sufficient information on the status of these sites due to the difficulty in reaching them and because they are in the center of battles, as in Serjilla, Shinshirah, and Rabiaa. And recently, large areas of Mount Zāwiya were declared military zones due to their location on the front lines, this thing exposes them to many violations.
Military presence in the archaeological site – Shinshara 2018
- Sabotage Actions
There are acts of a systematic sabotage for some archaeological buildings as a result of ignorance about the value of these sites and their public ownership, or as a result of false religious beliefs that led to the demolish all Christian symbols and many examples were reflected in the site of Al-Bara where burials and church medals bearing crosses inscriptions were destroyed. This is also what happened in the site of Rabiaa. There are also random sabotage acts, happened in front of a building in the site of Deir Sunbul. Many of the human and animal inscriptions in many locations were also targeted by shooting or deforming the faces and the best example was the Roman tombs in Qatura site. While recently, we have noticed the cessation of these hostilities.
Tombs in Qatura – 2020
- The Crushing and Cutting of Archeological Stones
As a result of the low standards of living and the large increase in the number of displaced people who settled near the archaeological sites, some of them started to break and cut archeological stone blocks in order to use them in modern buildings as they don’t cost a lot and because of the absence of responsible authorities and antiquities law execution in these areas. This damage has disastrous consequences that are difficult to avoid and they are constantly increasing with every new movement of population. This phenomenon spread into many archaeological sites in the ancient villages, the most important of which is Al-Bara site in which there are workshops used to cut and sell stones. As well as in Baqirha, Kafr Aqab and many other sites.
Archeological Stones were cut in order to reuse – Al-Bara 2017
Documenting the Current State of the Archaeological Park
No. /6/ in Mount Aʻlā
Mount Aʻlā is one of the main mountains that constitute what is known as the Limestone Massif in Northwestern Syria and includes many Roman and Byzantine archeological villages. Three sites were chosen to form the archaeological park which was included on the World Heritage List in addition to other complexes in the rest of the Limestone Massif. These three sites are the Qalb Laqzeh, Al-Kfeir and Qarqbizeh villages with an area of about 160 km2.
Mount Aʻlā is distinguished by the contrast in its natural landscape, which varies between the harsh karst forms and the fertile plain extending to the East where it is separated from Mount Barisha. Mount Aʻlā is also distinguished by preserving the ancient agricultural filed systems, and the vegetation cover here is less dense than the neighboring Mount Barisha. The cultivation of olives tress is widespread alongside fig trees, in addition to planting grains on this mountain.
- Qlab Lawzeh
The church of Qalb Lawzeh is the second most important landmark after the church of St. Simeon in the Limestone Massif. There are not many architectural monuments remaining on this site except the church itself. We found also few residential houses and oil mills spread in the site.
Modern housing developed during the last century in the vicinity of the church which became the center of the modern village. The village of Qalb Lawzeh is characterized by its inhabitants belonging to the religious community known as the Druze who identify themselves as the Unitarians.
Despite the historical and architectural importance of the church of Qalb Lawzeh, it was subjected to neglect and violations throughout the past due to the ignorance applied by its local community as a result of the sensitivity of situation during the conflict time in Syria, in addition to the large number of displayed people who came to the village.
The Church of Qalb Lawzeh 2010 – Taken by: Abdulslama Alhamo
_ Documenting the Current State
The church of Qalb Lawzeh was not severely damaged like other sites during the conflict in Syria. The reason behind that was the church’s location in the middle of the modern village and its relative distance from the areas of war and battles. However, its location in a modern residential center, made the church subjected to unfair exploitation for a quite some time, and all side damages were monitored. Damages were identified as the following:
- Using the Church as a Barn for Animals
Between 2014 and 2017, the church was transformed into an animal barn to raise cows and sheep by one of the displaced migrants who came from Aleppo Governorate. This resulted in creating a layer of animal droppings covering the floor of the church and later on, additional doors and windows were installed to block the church’s openings. These violations remained shallow and did not harm the structural and architectural elements of the church. And with the efforts of the Idlib Antiquities Center and in cooperation with the local council in the village, we were able to re-liberate the church, prevent its use as a barn and we cleaned and removed the dirt from it with the help of the local residents. The entry to the church was restricted to visitors only and under the supervision of the local council.
Photo Date: 2019 Photo Date: 2016
Photo Date: 2020
- Secret/Illegal Excavation (Unauthorized Digging)
The traces of excavation and shoveling were discovered in 2017 below the Southern façade of the church. These holes reached the bottom of the foundations and there are some huge building stones that were removed from the excavation process and placed next to the church. In addition to the presence of a group of small holes in the nave of the church, the largest of which is near the apse in the Northern hallway.
Due to the strong opposition of the village residents to the excavation and shoveling work in the vicinity of the church and in cooperation with the Idlib Antiquities Center, we were able to completely stop the digging and fill in the holes. But at that time, we were unable to continue our documentation work to know more about the damages these illegal actions caused, because we were prevented from continuing our work and our cameras were taken from us by the security/army agents in the area.
A pit slashed by a bulldozer – February 2017
Photo Date: 2020 Photo Date: 2019
- Vandalism Actions
The church did not witness intentional sabotage, especially its rich decorations and decorative elements which were well preserved, but we detected that the upper row of the two-row stairs that leads to the apse was ruined, where its stone tiles were uprooted and remained in the vicinity of the apse. The stone tiles were returned to their positions to prevent losing them without being tied to the mortar waiting for their future conservation.
The apse of the church
Photo Date: 2020 Photo Date: 2019
- The Attempts to Utilize the Church Building and Transform it into a School
The documentation work of the church was completed during one of the stages of this project, specifically in March. As a result of the military progression in the South and East of Idlib and the accompanying major humanitarian catastrophe, which was reflected in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents searching for safer areas.
A group of migrants from the Western countryside of Aleppo entered the church and used the building as a temporary school. Equipment, metal panels, roofs and removable walls were brought in to rearrange the church interior, divide it into classrooms, and provide it with public facilities (toilets).
This happened at the end of February 2020, when they installed metal panels to close the windows and openings starting from the ones in the wall of the apse and the Western church door, and channels equipped with plastic tubes were drilled to create a drainage system that starts from the apse and extends outside the church below the Southern façade to reach a deep new hole in front of the Western facade of the church that was used as a storage tank for collecting wastewater. Several water tanks were placed in and around the church.
In addition to the above, the metal elements were installed on the antique walls using pressing technique and without drilling holes in them. This transgression caused a major refusal by the locals and they asked the Idlib Antiquities Center to provide assistance and stop the serious interventions.
We have devoted a part of our current documentation project to protect the church and end these violations and through establishing a wide campaign with the help of the locals, we have reached an agreement with the administrative authorities and displaced people affairs to close the school in the church building and reallocate it outside the village, because this church is registered on the World Heritage List and any damaging or misusing action will threaten its safety and historical function.
The apse windows were blocked and covered – March 2020
The Western door was blocked – March 2020
All the new construction materials and equipment used in the site, were removed and collected by the center team – March 2020
The preparation of building toilets in the site – March 2020
We succeeded in stopping all violations, dismantling and transferring all equipment and supplies at the expense of the Idlib Antiquities Center and settling the situation to what it was previously.
The church building was also closed with metal locks to prevent anyone from entering it at the present time. Despite the seriousness of the violation, we succeeded in removing all its effects, and the damage remained confined to the surface trenches that were created for the drainage network and the two deep holes, which were made as a drainage tanks, were filled again after being documented on the church plan.
The church after cleaning and removing abuses – June 2020
After completing the documentation work of the church of Qalb Lawzeh, we removed and fixed all violations. And a church plan was prepared presenting all the types of violations and their spread during the past period, which begins with the beginning of the war in Syria and until mid-2020.
It is located northeast of the Qalb Lawzeh church, 1km away and it sits on top of a ridge overlooking the plain that separates Mount Aʻlā from Mount Barisha and features a stunning landscape view. The site is distinguished by the fact that it preserves its ancient form without having a modern housing inside or near it, and it is surrounded by olive trees. Its buildings date back to the Roman period, and during the fifth and sixth centuries A.D an urban development has occured. The most important feature of the site is the presence of a church dating back to the fourth century A.D and is thus one of the oldest Christian places of worship in Northern Syria.
_ Documenting the Current State
During the period of the conflict in Syria, Qarqbizeh was transformed into headquarter for one of the opposition groups. The access to the site was denied and archaeological documentation was not permitted, and the situation continued to be like that until 2016, when the site was evacuated from the military presence.
Despite these violations, the site still maintains its authenticity to an acceptable level and the efforts to reduce the attacks can be mitigated over time.
The church after cleaning and removing all the violations – June 2020
These violations acts were identified as the following:
- Military Presence
The damages resulted from the military use of the site are still visible through many physical evidences. We detected the presence of some potholes and trenches that are used to protect the soldiers from bombing. In addition to the use of underground buildings carved into the rock as shelters, also concrete walls were built to block the doors and other walls were added to the entrances.
After the site was evacuated from the military forces which its effects significantly disappeared and only the modern walls will be removed in the future without damaging the site.
The use of an old olive oil mill for habitation – Photo Date: 2019
Training equipment was found in the archaeological site – 2016
- Shooting Bullets at the Archaeological Building Facades
After the site was evacuated from the military forces, some armed soldiers kept visiting the site to train on shooting fire, using the facades of some ancient buildings, as targets. Many of the archaeological facades were exposed to gunfire from light and medium rifles, which destroyed parts of the archaeological facades, distorted the decorative elements, and destroyed the surface of the antique stones.
Through our continuous documentation work in 2019-2020, we did not notice any recent new violations, as most of them probably happened before 2019.
The façade of the Southern church (the most important building in the site) was the most affected building by these violations, as the outer façade of the wall surrounding the church was deformed, in addition to the upper half of the South wall of the church façade, where the decorations of the lintel above the Western door were lost, while the lintel of the Eastern door was barely damaged.
The Southern facade of the church The facade of the outer Southern wall of the church
We also noticed that there was a trace of gunfire on the Northern facade of the church, which is free of decorations and doors.
The Northern facade of the church
In addition to the church building, there was a similar damage, but at a lower rate on the front of the residential building next to the church from the East.
The same applies on the façade of a house in the Southern part of the site, where the lintel decorations were tarnished with live bullets.
The Southern facade of a residential building to the East of the churc – A residential building in the South of the site
- Secret/Illegal Excavation (Unauthorized Digging)
The site did not witness the looting and illegal digging attempts during the military presence in the site, but after the site was evacuated, some random excavations dating back to 2019 appeared in separate places of the site, which are modern excavations, most of which are not deep. These excavations ruined parts of the archaeological layers and some foundations, but did not cause damages to the buildings themselves. Although they were not widely spread, but they represent a serious danger because the site is open and away from the current residency area in the neighboring village of Qalb Lawzeh.
- Recent Additions to the Site
During the military presence, modern buildings made of concrete blocks were built to be used as public facilities (bathrooms) in three places within the archaeological buildings, but there were no permanent damages to those buildings, as they are removable in the future and they are all deserted now.
- Building an Agricultural Road in the Middle of the Site
The olive trees surround the site and some of them extend inside the site. The trees are privately owned by the residents of the village of Qalb Lawzeh. To reach the orchards located to the South of the site, the farmers paved a road at the end of 2019, enabling the agricultural mechanisms (trucks) to reach their orchards, and this resulted in bulldozing the architectural elements inside the site and breaking the stones and walls that were broken along the road. This road starts from the square in the South of the church and extended the Southeastern corner of the site.
- Building a Temporary Camp within the Site
After we finished documenting the current state of the site between the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the general situation in Idlib area has changed due to the military attacks on the Western countryside of Aleppo, the Northern countryside of Hama and the Southern Idlib, and due to the accompanying mass expulsion of the population towards areas inside and outside Idlib.
The archaeological sites in Mount Aʻlā were a temporary settlement for the displaced people. The site was inhabited by a group of people from the Western countryside of Aleppo in February and they built dozens of tents among the ancient buildings because the site of Qarqbizeh is a public property, as tents spread in the South square till the Sast side of the church, in addition to other tents in the center and South of the site.
Qarqbizeh camp – March 2020
The Idlib Antiquities Center team followed up the work in the site to assess the damages resulting from the recent violations and communicate with the camp residents to limit as much as possible permanent damages which are affecting the site and exposing the archaeological buildings. We highlighted the need for housing on the site and how it is important to keep this situation as a temporary one until securing an alternative place to accommodate the displaced people. After three months, the camp was evacuated.
The team of Idlib Antiquities Center visited the site and contacted with the camp residents
By documenting the site after its evacuation, it was confirmed that the situation had returned to what it was previously. The last violation did not leave any damages except for traces of surface trenches that surrounded the tents and for some floors paved with a layer of stones and we did not record any recent additions from the buildings inside the site.
The result of the evacuation and relocation of the camp outside the archaeological site – June 2020
- Reusing Archaeological Reservoirs/Tanks for Irrigation
In general, Qarqbizeh has preserved the natural landscape surrounding the site. Olive orchards and some forest trees are still preserved.
The urban sprawl and the construction of informal settlements did not reach the site and the attempts to build permanent camps in the vicinity of the site were turned down by the desire of farmers and their commitment to preserve their fields and orchards. This thing helped in preserving the site.
The most distinguishing feature of the site is the connection between the local community and the site itself and this connection is defined by the use of archaeological water tanks spread throughout the site which depends on collecting rain water in the winter where farmers use these water resources to water their livestock and irrigate their fields near the site.
This exploitation is a model of the interaction between humans and the archaeological site and re-employing the water tanks in a way that benefits the local community.
This use did not cause any damage to the site despite building a cement tank in the square in the center of the site to collect water from the underground tanks and then pump it to the neighboring fields.
A modern water tank in the center of the archaeological site – 2019
It is located in an isolated location and devoid of modern housing, northwest of the church of Qalb Lawzeh. Al-Kfeir is characterized by a distinctive nature view, which overlooks steep valleys of a harsh Karst nature from the West and more green hills from the South and East. The site is divided into two neighborhoods, the eastern comprises a church and 13 houses. While the West includes 18 houses. Most of its buildings are kept on the first floor level and many modern sites are spread throughout the site.
The most important building of the site is the church dating back to the fifth century A.D and it has a single nave that includes Bema, and what distinguishes the church most is the hemispherical apse, which is provided with supports from outside.
_ Documenting the Current State
The site maintained its overall condition throughout the years of the conflict in Syria and remained abandoned from modern housing and relatively far from the camps of the displaced migrants, which helped in preserving the site’s buildings and its environmental surroundings. However, we detected some violations in this site.
- Secret/Illegal Excavation (Unauthorized Digging)
Several illegal excavations were spotted in the site, which spaced widely in several buildings, and they are relatively not deep holes but they affected the surface layers and some foundations. The most important of these holes were in the courtyard of the church from the South and under the apse of the church from the outside to the North, where they revealed the foundations of the apse and the bases of the pillars.
The Southern facade of the church The Northern facade of the church apse
In addition to the church, the excavation of the western neighborhood of the site is spreading more widely, and they uncovered some walls, foundations and modern tanks.
Secret excavations in the Western district of the site
It appears from the shape of the excavations, the use of manual drilling equipment by the aggressors, with only one exception which is related to a large hole in the middle of the western neighborhood within a building carved into the natural rock in which explosives and heavy drilling equipment were used instead of manual drilling equipment. This left a great damage but it seems that no archaeological monument has been uncovered.
Secret drilling acts were executed using explosive materials
- Shooting Bullets at the Archaeological Building Facades
We detected a single case of this type of damage, as the outer wall of the northern wall of the church was exposed to random gunfire from light guns on the wall, which is a wall free of decorations and openings. These bullets damaged the surface of the stones. We do not know why this facade was targeted despite the absence of any military presence on this site.
The Northern facade of the church
- Using the Site as a Ranch to Raise, Feed and Breed Animals
Because there are large areas of natural forests around the site that allow the grazing, many of the site’s buildings were used as barns for sheep and goats by the inhabitants of the neighboring village (Qalb of Lawzeh). But this use was not an unjust use and did not cause real damages to the site. Where walls of rubble were spread on the surface of the site and mud mortar was added to block the openings and some of the broken walls, and no recent additions were recorded that affected the general view. Farmers took advantage of the reservoirs in the site to water their livestock.
Parts of the site were used as Cattle sheds/Ranches
- Modern Tents in the Site
We recently observed (in June 2020) in our last tour of documentation that four tents were constructed at the site, which were not there before. Two of which are next to
Modern tents inside the archaeological site
the large building to the East of the site and two below the northern façade of the church. These tents are inhabited by men only, which indicates that the aim of housing in this isolated site is to excavate the site and search for hidden antiquities, which
confirms the new holes in the site.
Despite the difficulties in the process of documenting the current state of the archaeological villages registered on the World Heritage lists in Mount Aʻlā. The changes and developments that accompanied the documentation process were a result of political and military changes throughout northwestern Syria. However, we were able to provide an idea on the current situation and its impact on the archaeological sites’ reality.
By assessing the current state of these ancient villages, we can say that although there are some fixed violations, such as secret digging and deformation of some facades with gunshots. But these three sites are in a reasonable state of conservation, and the encroachments did not affect the general landscape of the archaeological park.
There are no real violations that threaten the registration terms of this park on the World Heritage List. The overall view of the park still maintains its authenticity, and there is no change to the surrounding landscape. The site continues to witness the interaction between the local population and the monuments and this interaction is defined by continuing the inhabitants to preserve the previous living patterns of grazing and olive cultivation.
The experience of documenting Jabal Aley is a clear example of the community’s role in protecting heritage and protecting its effects from any subversive actions, just as the residents of the village of Qalb Luzah did when they prevented abuses and generally stopped any attempt to distort the church or remove it from its archaeological function.