Within the framework of the project executed by SIMAT – Syrians for Heritage Association in cooperation with the Idlib Antiquities Center and funded by the J.M. Kaplan Fund to protect and document the violations which the castle of Saint Simeon suffered from during the years of war in Syria, the below actions were implemented:
- Documentation and assessment of the structural damage to the castle.
- Documentation of the current condition of the castle and its surroundings.
- Carry out emergency interventions to conserve and stabilize the most damaged parts.
After the completion of documenting the structural damage and the current condition of the castle, our team conducted emergency interventions in order to mitigate the damage and prevent further deterioration (Figure 1).
Figure 1. The Opening photo. © SIMAT.
The most important previous conservation work in the castle of Saint Simeon:
The current condition of the Simeon castle is due to the great efforts which were made to conserve the site and rehabilitate it as an archaeological site to welcome visitors since the mid of the twentieth century. At the time, each of George Kalamkirian and George Tchalenko began extensive actions of uncovering, removing debris and restoration within the castle, which included the crucifixion church, the monks’ chapel and the castle wall in addition to the roof between the church and the baptistery where the Byzantine buildings and fortifications from the tenth century were removed except for one of them.
During the 1980s, conservation work continued by the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums and among the tasks was the uncovering of the bottom of the eastern wall by removing the rubble.
The Current Emergency Intervention:
The Castle of Saint Simeon is one of the most important archaeological sites registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List within the group of eight archaeological parks, which include 40 villages and archaeological sites from the villages of the Limestone Massif.
Therefore, it was necessary to take this matter into account while implementing the current emergency intervention in order to preserve the standards and features which were specified in the UNESCO registration file. The team also had to review previous conservation work, especially in the sites where the emergency interventions would be implemented. Due to the different types of damage within the five cases that will be intervened, the team had decided and planned the interventions in a consecutive manner, each intervention separately, with the necessary materials in each operation which were determined and prepared in advance (Figure 2).
Figure 2. A plan of the Castle of Saint Simeon shows the points in which emergency interventions were conducted. © Abdulslam Alhamo.
- The Western Wall (Figure 3):
Figure 3. The collapse in the western wall of the castle of Saint Simeon. © SIMAT.
It was difficult for our team to carry out any restoration work in this part of the wall due to the lack of appropriate capabilities. In addition, the conservation process needs advanced expertise, especially since the collapsed section is unstable. It was necessary to dismantle the remaining part of the wall and carry out excavation work on the edge of the interior facade to remove layers of backfill and expose the sides of the wall. It is also difficult to move and transfer the collapsing stones on the slope of the castle below the collapse hole (Figure 4).
Figure 4. The western wall, the edge of the collapsed area. © SIMAT.
We relied on conducting an emergency intervention aimed at maintaining the current condition and preventing further collapses of the wall by controlling the natural elements that could lead to the continuing danger of collapse. We constructed a shallow cement channel along the edge of the collapsed section from the top to collect the rainwater within the canal and then drained it away from the wall. Thus, we prevented the occurrence of rainwater dredging acts on the edges of the collapsed section and on the sides of the unstable parts of the remnants of the wall (Figure 5).
Figure 5. The water drainage channel on the edge of the collapsed area. © SIMAT.
We have also covered the entire hole in the fence with a plastic mesh that is resistant to weathering (shade netting), which aims to reduce the impact of strong westerly winds, stabilize small parts and prevent them from collapsing, and thus the effect of erosion factors can be reduced (Figure 6).
Figure 6. Covering the collapsed fence façade and fixing its weak parts. © SIMAT.
These procedures are temporary measures until opportunities are created to carry out real conservation work in the future to restore the current state to what it was, especially preserving the collapsed stones of the wall.
- The Western Basilica Arch (Figure 7):
Figure 7. The Western Basilica Arch – The column’s capital was damaged. © SIMAT.
As we mentioned in our previous report on the structural damages in the castle of Saint Simeon, the arch connecting the western basilica with the octagon was damaged due to the bombing of Saint Simeon’s column, where the explosion cracked the crown of the northern pillar that carries the arch and separated the crown into two pieces.
The team injected the gap in the column crown with a traditional mortar made of lime, sand and milled brick (Figure 8),
Figure 8. Using traditional mortar to inject the column crown and fill the gap. © SIMAT.
and then connected the two parts of the crown to each other by braces from ropes. Wood spacers were used between the girdles and the crown body, taking into consideration reducing the pressure on the body of the crown (Figure 9).
Figure 9. Fixing the shaft crown with braces after the completion of the injection process. © SIMAT.
Through this procedure, we ensured the reduction of the influence of weather factors (frost) on the crown of the shaft and we have kept the crown in its place (Figure 10).
Figure 10. Documenting the damages and interventions on the western arch of the basilica. © SIMAT.
- The Southern Façade of the Entrance to the Crucified Church (Figure 11):
Figure 11. The main southern façade of Saint Simeon church. © SIMAT.
It is the main façade of the Castle’s Church, which is a hallway leading to the southern wall of the southern basilica.
This façade was severely affected as a result of the aerial bombardment that targeted the south area about 10 meters away of the façade, as large parts of the façade were fragmented, and the largest part of the eastern column of the central pillar, which bears the central triangular arch fell (Figure 12).
Figure 12. An illustration of the damages on the southern façade of the Simeon church. © Abdulslam Alhamo.
The weight of the forehead triangle is distributed over the collapsed column and the adjacent pillar, which holds the bulk of the façade’s weight.
The team supported the central arch by using metal supports with a diameter of 8 cm, and placed wooden spacers on the ends of the metal supports to prevent its friction with the stone and to give flexibility to reduce the pressure of the metal supports on the arch (Figure 13).
Figure 13. Supporting the arch with metal braces. © SIMAT.
This procedure reduced the load pressure on the lateral pillar and contributed to the stability of the facade arch.
- The Eastern Wall (Figure 14):
Figure 14. The window opening in the wall of the eastern fence. © SIMAT.
As we mentioned in our previous report on the structural damages in the castle of Saint Simeon, a hole in the eastern wall was found, as a result of the collapse of several courses from the front section of the wall, creating a window gap within it. This collapse is a result of the erosion of fill layers and natural soil under the wall from the eastern side. As a result of that, the collapsed stones were lost from the wall and were transferred to the embankment that was established on the right of the ascending road east of the castle.
Despite the fact that the gap in the wall is relatively small. It was found that the façade of the wall is generally unstable as a result of dredging works and the foundations of the wall were exposed in that area, as the entire facade is threatened to collapse as a result of loosening the soil below the foundation located over the slope of several meters.
The foundations had to be installed before starting any emergency intervention. Therefore, we strengthened the foundations of the facade by creating a slope of dirt and stones in which we used materials from the remains of limestone quarries from an area 15 km away from the castle. We also collected all the carved stone blocks belonging to the castle wall, which were bulldozed and placed in the embankment east of the castle and paved within the slope in order to strengthen it and to save these stone blocks from loss and transportation outside the site (Figure 15).
Figure 15. Transferring of archeological stones from the berm and placing them on the modern slope. © SIMAT.
Through the construction of this artificial ramp, we were able to stabilize the foundations of the wall and compensate the deficiency resulting from the dredging works. We were also able to create a ground that enables us to work safely under the window gap in the façade of the fence without feeling the risk of the façade collapsing while carrying out our emergency intervention work (Figure 16).
Figure 16. The slope was created to support the fence façade and to cover the exposed foundations. © SIMAT.
- The Reinforcement Work of the Window hole in the Fence Wall (Figure 17):
Figure 17. An illustration documenting the conservation work on the eastern wall. © Abdulslam Alhamo.
There is a real difficulty in conserving the facade at the present time as it needs to dismantle the remaining parts and rebuild them and compensate the deficiency in the new hole as a result of the collapse, especially with the loss of collapsed stones and the difficulty of verifying them among the stones collected from the adjacent embankment.
Therefore, we conducted an emergency intervention aimed at stabilizing the condition as it is, waiting for advanced conservation work in the future. We re-sealed the hole using limestone of the polygonal and non-trimmed type, which is usually used in local construction here in some parts of the wall during different historical stages.
We used cement mortar to connect stones with the exception of the edges of direct contact with the original stones of the fence, where we used traditional mortar of lime, sand and ash, which is a traditional mortar used in the Islamic era, and there is a use of it in some parts of the wall during different historical stages (Figure 18).
Figure 18. Preparing traditional mortar and filling the gap in the wall with limestone. © SIMAT.
Although the newly added wall is inconsistent with the general shape of the wall’s façade, it provides protection for the parts above it from falling, and it is a temporary procedure that can be reversed at a later time (Figure 19).
Figure 19. The façade of the eastern wall after conservation work. © SIMAT.
- The Mosaic Floor in the Byzantine Bath (Figure 20):
Figure 20. The Byzantine Bath. © SIMAT.
The Byzantine Bath is located on the western side of the slope on which the Simeon Castle is built. It was discovered by the French expedition in 2008 and its excavations have not ended and they revealed a mosaic floor covering the entire bath floor and it is well preserved. As mentioned in our previous report, parts of the painting were exposed and exposed to vandalism in an earlier period from the end of the year 2015 (Figure 21).
Figure 21. The bath floor panel is damaged and vandalized. © SIMAT.
Through the current project, we assessed the condition of the painting, which showed that there were no new infringements on it, but the exposed parts, which were identified in six places on the bath floor, were more damaged due to neglect and weather factors. The exposed parts had to be re-covered. The team covered the exposed parts without interfering with the restoration of the damaged parts. The coverage process was carried out according to the following mechanism (Figure 22):
Figure 22. An illustration shows the backfill layers. © Abdulslam Alhamo
Isolating the surface of the painting with a special cloth (Tyvek), which is usually used in wrapping artifacts with the aim of preventing plant roots from reaching the mosaic and destroying it, and then we buried the painting with several layers of dirt and small stones at the level of the previous backfill layer, which was carried out by the French mission (Figure 23).
Figure 23. The stages of covering the exposed mosaic floor parts. © SIMAT.
The emergency intervention works in the Castle of Saint Simeon were simple, as we tried to carefully intervene to preserve the authenticity that characterizes the architectural elements in the castle, and to not carry out static conservation works. We seek, by keeping the castle under constant monitoring and documentation to preserve the current status of it without further damage until the return of stability to the region and the end of the war.
We hope that the conservation work in the castle will be a priority in the post-war period because this castle will become an important center for attracting visitors and an important witness to the modern history of the region during the years of war in Syria. The work in this castle is an evidence of the role of civil society organizations in preserving the Syrian cultural heritage. It showed also how important to enhance these organizations’ role in the future alongside the official archaeological authorities (Figure 24).
Figure 24. The team members at the castle of Saint Simeon. © SIMAT.