The recent news story about archaeologists excavating the ancient site of Karkemish, which is situated right on Turkey’s frontier with Syria, a mere 20-metres away from Islamic State-held territory in the latter country, is an apt and tragic metaphor of the situation in Syria today.
In essence here are passionate archeologists excavating artifacts from the rich and ancient civilizations which blossomed on that terrain for the world to see while modern day Syria is being burned and countless numbers of its inhabitants are being buried in that very same soil. The same soil which roughly corresponds to the lands the first farmers cultivated. That same soil is once again being bloodied by the highly uncivilized and barbaric excesses of tyrants and terrorists alike.
Of course all of the recent artifacts these archeologists have recently unearthed are in Turkey. Even though technically 20 meters away from Syrian soil, ancient Syrian heritage does not necessarily conform to our present day international borders. And on the subject of modern international borders, it so happens that the last major excavation to take place at Karkemish was undertaken by a British team which included T.E. Lawrence, the famed Lawrence of Arabia, who led the Arab revolt against the Ottomans–a series of events which shaped the modern Middle East region we know today.
The relatively porous nature of that Syrian-Turkish border area saw tensions rise there between the French colonists in Syria and Turkish nationalists decades ago; on top of that it took many more years to thoroughly remove all the land-mines scattered across the area and make it safe for visitors. These are some of the reasons why, in spite of its historical significance and importance, Karkemish is only being closely examined by archeological experts at present. Hieroglyphics which are an astonishing 5,000 years old were uncovered there just this month.
While those archeologists do this important work on that ancient site, five-hundred Turkish soldiers, with accompanying tanks and artillery, stand guard to ensure that the area isn’t attacked. After all, the Syrian people are not the only victims of the likes of Islamic State and that horrible ongoing war. The country’s rich and ancient heritage has been badly damaged, from the battering of the ancient citadel with artillery and gunfire to the burning down of the ancient souk in Aleppo, all of Syria’s world heritage sites are under threat of being damaged or completely destroyed. These varied and wondrous buildings and ancient ruins have withstood the test of time, but many are being lost forever in this war.
The archaeologists doing that wonderful work at Karkemish don’t exaggerate the threat they face. They report that they feel safe due to that large aforementioned Turkish military presence which they are confident would effectively shield them from any potential attacks. In fact so confident are they in regards to the security of the area that they anticipate that it is going to be opened up for international tourists to explore by next spring.
So on the one side of the Syrian-Turkish frontier we’ll have all of this wonderful architecture being appreciated and marveled at by the peoples of the world while just south we have some equally wondrous marvels of our human civilization being wiped from the face of the earth.
The Director General of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Irina Bokova has said that what we are witnessing actions by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, or ISIL) group which amount to what she calls “cultural cleansing.” That is, the wanton destruction of ancient ruins and heritage sites which are recognized as being of outstanding value to the world.
In addition to the tragic loss of such monuments (be it intentional or as a result of close-quarters fighting, which was the case with many such sites in Syria’s Aleppo) the Islamic State group are also plundering archaeological and antiquity sites in the areas it controls. Selling the artifacts they find (many of which would be of particular interest to rich specialist collectors of Ancient Greek and Roman-era artifacts) to the black market those treasures of humanities past are now helping to fund more of Islamic States’ crimes against humanity, not to mention culture. While those treasures are literally stolen from where they were dug up Syria’s future is essentially being buried in their place.
So in conclusion the dire state-of-affairs is as follows. On the one hand we have that wonderful work going on in Karkemish after so long, and it’s beginning to finally bear fruit for the world to see. On the other hand this serves to demonstrate how easily the same could very well have been the case (and hopefully will still prove to be the case with what is left of that country’s amazing heritage when this horrible war finally ends) with all the many amazing sites Syria had to offer. Which makes the devastating damage and plundering done to them all the more lamentable and tragic.