International help in different scientific fields will be needed to document Syria’s damaged and looted archaeological sites, says the Syrian scholar Amal Al Kassem.
Currently based in Germany, Al Kassem is working on a plan involving local and international institutions with Syrian archaeologists doing fieldwork, analysing aerial photographs and providing aid to the most affected sites. These include sites in the Yabroud region where rare artifacts of early human settlement have been found.
Only fieldwork can assess the extent of the damage, while remote sensing technology can give a chronology of the damage from military operations and looting over the past ten years of civil war in Syria, she said.
A report published in 2020 by the German Gerda Henkel Foundation and the Syrian Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, based in France, estimated that more than 40,000 artifacts had been looted from Syrian museums and archaeological sites since the beginning of the war in 2011.
Amal Al Kassem organises training workshops and produces papers on documenting archaeological sites affected by the war and how to protect them.
She believes that the search for lost history “amid the great destruction and looting, which has affected thousands of archaeological sites, should be a major focus” in plans to rebuild her country.
Early Interest in Archaeology
“Returning to Syria is the dream of every Syrian and every archaeologist in particular. Syria is a destination for Western archaeologists, so how can it not be like that for its own researchers?”Amal Al Kassem A Syrian archaeologist working in Germany
Al Kassem received a doctorate for her work from Germany’s University of Cologne last year. Before moving to Germany in 2015, she earned a master’s degree from Damascus University in 2013 with a thesis on Paleolithic sites in Syria’s Daraa governorate.
She also worked in the Syrian Directorate‑General of Antiquities and Museums, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Culture. Her tasks included documenting damage to archaeological sites east of her home city of Daraa, in southern Syria, which she undertook while battles were taking place. She documented the damage to about 25 archaeological sites over five days.
Al Kassem, who is 38, became interested in archaeology in her early years in Daraa, where she saw ancient archaeological sites suffering from neglect during excavations. She then chose to study archaeology at Damascus University’s Faculty of Arts.
She particularly wanted to study the archaeological sites near Daraa but had difficulties gaining access to the stone tools they yielded because of the war.
The institute’s director, Jürgen Richter, let her use the stone tools discovered in a Syrian cave site known as Yabroud Shelter 1, which are preserved in the institute’s laboratories. He also gave her “all means of support over the years of writing her thesis,” she said.
Her doctoral thesis dealt with the people who lived and then became extinct in the mountainous Yabroud region, north of Damascus. She described how they found food and drink throughout the year, moving between the highlands in the summer and lowlands in the winter, fully dependent on the local produce.
Studying Syrian Sites from Afar
The richness of Syrian archaeology “requires the presence of more scientific cadres in the reconstruction phase, especially women, … in all fields to analyse and study extinct societies through the remnants that have been discovered.”Amal Al Kassem
Al Kassem is currently doing postdoctoral research at the University of Cologne on a documentary study of the affected archaeological areas of southern Syria.
As she is unable to do fieldwork there, “I use remote sensing technology to complete the search for the affected Syrian areas and to explore archaeological sites in the areas under research and study.”
Al Kassem wants Syrian scholars to enroll in archaeological disciplines to document the damage to looted sites and help reconstruct them.
She says the richness of Syrian archaeology “requires the presence of more scientific cadres in the reconstruction phase, especially women, … in all fields to analyse and study extinct societies through the remnants that have been discovered.”
She said the war had increased interest in Syrian heritage sites and their protection at local and international levels, but archaeological research and excavation had stopped because of the repercussions of the war and lack of security in some areas.
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When her academic studies are finished, Al Kassem wants to return to Syria to visit archaeological sites and help deal with the damage they suffered.
“Returning to Syria is the dream of every Syrian and every archaeologist in particular,” she said. “Syria is a destination for Western archaeologists, so how can it not be like that for its own researchers?”
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