In 2015, the team of the Idlib Antiquities Center in cooperation with SIMAT published a detailed report that documented and illustrated the structural damage affecting the archaeological site of Saint Simeon at the time. The current report comes as a continuation of our previous efforts in documenting the condition of the site. It addresses all the violations and different types of hazards that damaged the site between 2015 and 2020. Furthermore, the team has been monitoring the environmental and urban changes that have taken place in the natural landscape of the site.
(Figure 1). The octagon of Saint Simeon church – © SIMAT – 2020.
Primary hazards to the integrity of the site:
– As the Syrian revolution sparked across the country at the beginning of 2011, the French archaeological mission had to halt its work in the site, and so touristic tours to the site were canceled. In the same year, Fortress management team reported that the eastern basilica floor of the Saint Simeon Church complex was subject to acts of vandalism. According to the report, the marble floor was especially damaged after parts of the cement layer that was protecting it were removed.
– In 2012, the site was no longer under the control of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) nor any other specialized authority that may be able to maintain the site and enforce its protection. Some service equipment and facilities were looted around that period.
– Between 2012 and 2016, the fortress turned into a camp for the armed forces of the opposition. Later, different armed groups took control of the site, but it remained relatively far from the areas of combat.
– At the beginning of 2016, the fortress became on the frontline of the combat between the opposition and the Kurdish forces in the north. Thus, the fortress was subject to artillery shelling and bombardment by warplanes, as it will be illustrated later.
– Later, the site became a border area separating Afrin region from the Idlib governorate and from the regime forces in the northeast of the site. The area to the west between Saint Simeon fortress and the village of Dair Simeon turned into a crossing passage for transporting travelers and commercial goods. It also connected Afrin region and the northern of Aleppo with Idlib governorate. This was accompanied with the construction of a group of buildings and warehouses, especially in the Al-Qaws area on the Hajj road between the fortress and the Monastery of Saint Simeon, which had significantly changed the features of the region.
The condition of the site until 2015
The condition of the fortress and the damage impacting it remained completely unknown until the Idlib Antiquities Center team gained access to the site and conducted a rapid assessment for its condition in the Fall of 2015.
The team carried out a photographic documentation of the site and the most alarming threats to its safety. It was found that until 2015, the fortress was in a relatively well-preserved structural and architectural conditions. The team detected moderate damage in certain locations that will be addressed below. There were no urban encroachments to the site at the time of the visit. The military occupation of the site left it with a large trench in front of the church’s southern façade, and some training equipment was found in the yard between the facade of the church and the Baptistery.
(Figure 2). The trench in front of the southern facade of the church – © SHOSI – 2015.
Illicit excavation of the site was limited to a small pit that was dug to the northeast of the base of the Saint Simeon pillar. It was a shallow pit that removed the stone tiles of the floor.
Types of moderate damage to the archaeological site of Saint Simeon:
1- The front facade of the Baptistery was subject to heavy gunshots from light and medium weaponry during training operations carried out by military groups that occupied the site. This affected the surface of the archeological stones and led to its fragmentation in the main elevation of the Baptistery. Nevertheless, the architectural elements of the façade of the Baptistery remained intact and their structural stability was not compromised.
(Figure 3). The facade of the baptistery – © Ammar Kennawi – 2010.
2- A large trench was dug by a bulldozer in the southwestern part of the fortress. The dimensions of this trench sloping from south to north extended to approximately 15 meters in length, 10 meters in width, and 6 meters in depth. This trench revealed a water reservoir that was curved in the rocks, and it was carried on three massive stone pillars. One of these pillars was severely damaged and a large part of it has collapsed. This water tank is already known and it has two access points on the roof of the fortress. It was 3D documented by the French mission in 2009.
(Figure 4).Hole caused by a bulldozer on the west of the baptistery building – © SHOSI – 2015.
3- The mosaic floors and marble motifs in the eastern basilica were vandalized. It is believed that this group of stone and marble mosaic panels dating back to the 10th century A.D. were vandalized in 2011 for the mere purpose of sabotaging them and not for looting. The mosaic panels decorate some parts of the basilica floor, which was revealed in previous excavations and were covered by a layer of cement in the 1950s for its protection. Unfortunately, it was not possible to re-cover the panels, and hence, they were vulnerable to further vandalism and sabotage as it will be illustrated later in this report.
(Figure 5). The floor of the eastern basilica – © SHOSI – 2015.
4- The French mission that used to operate the site had designated what is known as the Chalinko House as a warehouse for storing the archaeological finds and its excavation equipment. At the end of 2011, the management team of the fortress transferred the contents of the warehouse to the basement located below the western Basilica, locally known as (the prison). At the arrival of the Idlib Antiquities Center team, the boxes of the archaeological finds were scattered across the basement and a large number of boxes has gone missing. The team could not locate the excavation equipment of the French mission, and it is not clear how or when exactly it was looted.
(Figure 6) .The warehouse of the French mission after its transfer to the basement of the Western Basilica – © SHOSI – 2015.
5- On the western side of the slope on which the Saint Simeon Fortress stands, a Byzantine bathhouse was discovered by the French mission in 2008, but its excavations were never completed. The excavations revealed a very-well preserved mosaic panels covering the entire floor of the bathhouse.
(Figure 7) . The mosaic floor of the Byzantine bath after it was revealed by the French mission – © Ammar Kennawi – 2010.
The mosaic floor was temporarily covered by the mission in the summer of 2010 with the intention of resuming the excavation in the following season, which never happened due to the conflict. Small parts of the panels suffered of vandalism while other parts were stripped of their covering protective layer, and there has been no intervention to preserve the mosaic panels. None of the panels has been looted.
(Figure 8) .The destroyed parts of the mosaic floor – © SHOSI – 2015.
The condition of the site between 2016 and 2020
With the interruption of the documentation work of Saint Simeon fortress due to the shifts of power in the region, it was difficult for the team to monitor the condition of the site and ensure its safety until April 2019. It was noticed then that a section of the fortress’ western wall had collapsed, which prompted us to communicate with various administrative and civil authorities in the region to organize a visit to the site. The purpose of the visit was to assess its condition and map the damage, especially that related to the collapse of the western wall.
Efforts of the Syrians for Heritage Association-SIMAT in cooperation with the Idlib Antiquities Center successfully resulted in securing a visit to the site.
Hazards to the site and their damage:
The fortress was repeatedly bombed, which resulted with the collapse of the eastern wall of the visitors’ entrance. The major event, however, was that of 2016 when the main complex was bombed by warplanes.
(Figure 9). The effects of the air strikes on the Saint Simeon Church – © unknown online source – 2016.
Through the documentation work and the current project that the team has been implementing, we were able to track the impact of the bombing and identify the damage it had caused:
– Saint Simeon’s Pillar: one of the rockets exploded near the base of the column, which triggered its collapse, and the base was cracked even though it remained in its place. Until the moment, there has been no trace of the remains of the rock mass laid by George Chalinko. The base was removed from its location with some of its remains remained in the same place. Bombing this part of the church severely damaged the architectural elements surrounding the pillar, i.e. the octagon of the church, the arches, capitals and columns which were cracked and deformed.
(Figure 10) .The remains of Saint Simeon pillar – © Ammar Kennawi – 2009, the Saint Simeon Pillar – © SIMAT – 2019.
– The southern façade of the church: it is the main façade of the structure. It was damaged as a result of the explosion of a rocket in the southern side of the church.
(Figure 11) .The southern façade of Saint Simeon church – © Ammar Kennawi – 2010.
The eastern column topped by a richly decorated Corinthian crown, which bears the central triangle arch collapsed and fragmented except for its lower part (around 1.5 m high) and its base. The Corinthian crown was shattered into several fragments.
(Figure 12) .The crown of the eastern pillar of the central arch of the southern façade – © unknown online source.
Additionally, the façade of the southern portico was fragmented along with the upper parts of the Basilica’s southern façade. The triangular cornice topping the eastern facade was damaged as well.
– The southeast section of the church: in the area separating the church from the monastery building located to its southeastern side, an explosion led to a large crack and fragmentation in the upper parts of the eastern pillar of the southern portico. The northwestern part of the monastery building was damaged too.
(Figure 13). The air strikes effects on the monastery square in the southeast of Saint Simeon church – © SIMAT – 2019.
– The area between the northern cemetery and the eastern basilica:
(Figure 14) .The facade of the Monks’ cemetery on the north wall – © Abdulslam Alhamo – 2008.
The explosion damaged the northern wall near the cemetery, accordingly, a group of stones collapsed in front of the tomb’s entrance. Additionally, the triangular cornice topping the western façade of the cemetery collapsed and we noticed the presence of fragmented stones inside the tomb.
(Figure 15) .The cemetery of monks – © SIMAT – 2020.
The military bombardment had also damaged the exterior façade of the Basilica from the east. The stones of the façade were fragmented as a result of the bombardment and part of them, which was recently restored, had collapsed. Part of the interior façade of the same wall, which had also been recently restored, collapsed too.
(Figure 16) .The air strikes effects on the northern façade of the eastern basilica – © SIMAT – 2020.
2- Military Use:
The military forces used the fortress as a training center for their members, and the site was later turned into a major frontline in the combat. Accordingly, the site was exposed to different types of hazards and damage. Below are the different types of damage as identified:
– Establishing a training center in the middle of the fortress: it extended from the main square in the southern side of the church until the baptistery building.
(Figure 17) .This photo shows the square in the middle of the fortress with the baptistery façade – © Ammar Kennawi – 2010.
To prepare the square for training, some ancient walls and foundations were slightly bulldozed, especially from the eastern end, where a group of rooms were exist.
(Figure 18).This photo shows the square in the middle of the fortress with the baptistery façade – © Ammar Kennawi – 2020.
– Dredging activities by the bulldozers and heavy machinery: especially at the entrance of the modern fortress (visitors’ entrance), in addition to bulldozing the area in front of the church’s main façade.
(Figure 19) .The road rising from the visitors’ entrance towards the square of the fortress – 2020, The front area of the southern facade of Saint Simeon church – © SIMAT – 2020.
The most alarming activity, however, was inside the church where the eastern and northern basilica floors were completely washed away, including the columns’ bases.
Figures 20.An aerial image of the eastern basilica – © The French Mission Archive.
(Figures 21).The eastern basilica – © SIMAT – 2020.
Additionally, a large area was bulldozed to build an earthen berm on the roof of the castle from the west. The bulldozing extends from the northwestern end of the church to the western side of the baptistery. As a result, a wide trench of approximately 5 meters wide and 2 meters deep was created.
(Figure 22) .The dredging work on the front area of the fortress – © SIMAT – 2020.
– Digging trenches and building ramparts: as the fortress was immediately located on the frontline of the conflict, a network of trenches was dug along the northern wall of the castle. The dirt of the excavation was used to fill sandbags that were placed on the surface of the wall as a fence. Small trenches branched out from the main trenches and reached the interior of the buildings next to the walls in some areas.
(Figure 23) .The trenches excavated on the sides of the wall in the northern section of the fortress – © SIMAT – 2020.
– Recent additions: a group of bathrooms was added to the baths block at the visitors’ entrance, and another adjacent to the castle’s eastern wall from inside. In addition to the construction of a wall surrounding the Dig House (Chalinko House).
(Figure 24) .Recent additions within the fortress – © SIMAT – 2020.
The team also noted the construction of a modern staircase where ancient stones of small size were used inside the tower in the middle of the northern wall. The most alarming violation, however, was in the group of buildings attached to the monastery building to the south of the church, where the roof of the buildings was covered with tiles that were installed with a layer of cement mortar.
(Figures 25) .The roof of one of the monastery building near the church – © Ammar Kennawi – 2008.
(Figures 26) .The modern tiles added over the archeological stone ceiling – © SIMAT – 2020.
3- Illicit Excavations:
On our previous visit in 2015, only few looting pits existed, but we noticed that their number had significantly increased between 2018 and 2019. The pits were concentrated in the church, but they are mostly shallow. Illicit excavation pits also exist in the monastery.
(Figure 27) .A group of secret excavations pits – © SIMAT -2020.
Two deep pits were excavated in the yard of the monastery building, south of the church, they reveal architectural elements buried within layers of archaeological backfill.
(Figure 28) .Deep pits in the monastery building near the church – © SIMAT – 2020.
We also noticed a pit in the southwest corner of the monastery. The excavation work here revealed a large amount of iron pieces, such as nails, tools and metal fragments, which we collected from the surface of the excavation pit and stored after documenting them with pictures.
(Figures 29) .The secret excavation pits in the monastery building with mixed pieces of metal with the remains of digging – © SIMAT – 2020.
(Figures 30) .Metal pieces after cleaning and preservation them – © SIMAT – 2020.
In addition to these excavations, the buildings located on the western wall opposite to the Baptistery suffered of illicit excavations some of which was relatively deep, especially, near the wall.
4- Tampering with the contents of the French mission’s warehouse:
It was mentioned previously that the warehouse of study objects and excavation equipment of the French mission was moved to the basement below the western Basilica, which we documented in 2015. These objects were artifacts for study such as pottery, bones, metal, etc. But at the present time, the condition of these objects has significantly changed. All the boxes that contained them were lost, and the plastic bags bearing the layers’ numbers and their cards that held the excavation information were torn apart.
(Figure 31) .The warehouse of the western basilica basement – © SIMAT – 2020.
Additionally, some bags were moved outside the warehouse and emptied there, and the pieces were scattered on the entire slope and around the warehouse.
5- Dredging the architectural elements transferred to the fortress:
The fortress includes many artifacts that were transferred from the archaeological sites in the Mount Simeon region and preserved inside it. These objects include columns’ capitals and some carvings and statues dating back to the Roman and Byzantine periods. The most important of these objects was a piece of stone representing a baptistery cover bearing rich ornamentation and inscription in Syriac.
In addition to those objects there were some decorative elements and columns’ capitals discovered in it. They were previously displayed next to the visitors ‘entrance in front of the cafeteria. These pieces adorned the visitors’ lounge and formed what looked like an open-air museum. However, due to the recent dredging work at the visitors’ entrance up to the roof of the fortress and in front of the cafeteria, most of these artifacts were lost. We were able to find some of them in the bulldozed parts.
(Figure 32) .The top of the baptistery font – © SIMAT – 2020.
The architectural elements on the roof of the fortress were found in a good condition. They mostly consisted of building stones that fell from the walls of the church in previous eras. They were carefully installed by the archaeologists and conservators who had worked in the site during the last century in order to use them in future restoration of the walls. The installed stones in the square between the Eastern Church and the monastery were washed away and collected with layers of fill.
(Figure 33) .Dredging the architectural elements inside and surrounding the fortress – © SIMAT – 2020.
6- The landscape and urban surroundings of the fortress:
The fortress sits on top of a mountain separated by valleys from the surrounding mountains, especially from the west and east. Mount Simeon and the surrounding area are characterized by a natural landscape and distinctive rural agricultural landscape, which did not undergo much deformation and encroachment before 2011. It is a mountainous area with some forests of oak and Pistacia trees.
During the years of the war, the forests of the Limestone villages in northwestern Syria had suffered to a great extent due to the extensive cutting of their trees for use in heating. Luckily, the pine forests surrounding the fortress survived the excess human use of its wood and the density of vegetation remained the same as before the conflict. However, this natural landscape of the fortress has been severely affected as a result of modern urban encroachments, as dozens of residential buildings and industrial establishments have spread in the area. These include poultry farms on the slopes and small plains that the fortress overlooks. These buildings are spread in the form of small groups, especially, at the southeastern end where the road that leads to the site starts.
(Figure 34) .The general view from the fortress looking out onto the southeastern slope – © SIMAT – 2020.
Modern residential buildings also spread to the south of the fortress as a result of the urban expansion in the neighboring village of Dayr Simeon. Many houses were built on the side of the road leading from Dayr Simeon to the Arc de Triomphe, west of the fortress. Al-Qaws area has also turned into a commercial exchange yard that includes many buildings and warehouses. Moreover, a group of buildings extends between the agricultural fields to northwest of the site.
(Figure 35).The general view from the fortress looking out onto the northwestern slope – © SIMAT – 2020.
The encroachments did not stop at the level of modern construction only. A group of stone quarries spreads on the slopes facing the fortress from the west and on the side of the road that extends from the crossroad of the village of al-Qatura to the foothills of the mountain that stands to the east of the castle.
(Figures 36) .A new stone quarry located on the east of the fortress – © SIMAT – 2020.
(Figures 37) .A stone quarry located on the east slope in front of the fortress – © SIMAT – 2020.
These modern encroachments threaten the authenticity of the classic public scene, which was one of the main reasons for registering the villages of the Limestone Massif on the World Heritage List.
The great significance of Saint Simeon Fortress which mainly stems from its outstanding historical and artistic values did not spare the archaeological site the atrocities of the Syrian civil war, which has killed and displaced millions of the Syrian population. Neither did the site receive the attention it deserves to enforce its protection, which other archaeological sites in Syria had fortunately gained. Through the implementation of our current project, it became clear to us, that lacking awareness of the significance of the fortress and the urgent need to protect it and the absence of the archaeological and civil society organizations in raising that awareness was a fundamental factor in the spread of vandalism and other forms of violations. which was clear through the indiscriminate bulldozing actions that aimed to remove the effects of bombing In 2016, as well as dredging under the foundations of the fortress’s Eastern wall and in the use of the baptistery façade as a shield for shooting training with automatic weapons, in addition to the neglect and loss of findings of archaeological excavations stored in the warehouse of the French mission.
The archaeological site of Saint Simeon is suffering of different types of damage that extends from the impact of gunshots and light weaponry to that of bulldozers and heavy machinery. The site has also endured illicit excavations and potential looting of its archaeological finds. Fortunately, the aforementioned types of damage fall in the category of moderate damage, and the impact of most these violations can still be reversed if and adequate response has been implemented. It is our hope that peace and stability are restored to Syria, and that one day in the near future the archaeological site of Saint Simeon will regain its educational and touristic role in the lives of the local community and Syrians in general.
This project was executed by SIMAT – Syrians for Heritage Association and the Idleb Antiquities Center and was funded by the J.M. Kaplan Fund
The Idleb Antiquities Center team members who participated in executing this project were:
Munir Al Kaskas
As for the documentation work, it was executed by SIMAT members in Syria:
Translation Team: Rim Lababidi, Lora Abaza.