Inside it was worse. The administrative area was in shambles. Filing cabinets were turned over, and papers dating back to the museum’s founding by British archaeologist Gertrude Bell in the 1920s, were strewn about. Small fires had destroyed some offices. In the display area, angry mobs had shattered the cases and smashed 2,000-year-old statues. The primary storage facility had been breached, and some 15,000 objects—no one knows exactly how many—were gone. Among the missing pieces were thousands of tiny cylinder seals, as well as several iconic artifacts such as the Lady of Warka, a stone head of a woman found at Uruk, which is considered the world’s oldest city.
Had museum officials not hidden 8,366 of the most valuable artifacts in a safe place known only to them, this event might have been a catastrophe for cultural heritage in Iraq. For a while, no one knew for certain how much damage had been done; I was with a team of U.S. archaeologists who arrived to assess the situation. Most of the museum’s estimated 170,000 artifacts were eventually found to be safe. The rampage had earned front-page headlines across the world. It was entirely preventable.
Some 2,500 years earlier, the Persian king Cyrus the Great was able to storm nearby Babylon, then the world’s largest city, but texts from the time relate that there was no chaos or looting. However, in 2003, American troops failed to secure what was second on their own list, after the Central Bank, of important places to protect in the modern Iraqi capital. Archaeologists had visited the Pentagon prior to the invasion to provide military officials with detailed coordinates of all major Iraqi cultural heritage sites.
The looting of the museum was over less than 48 hours after it began on April 10, 2003. But it was only the start of a decade of disaster for Iraq’s cultural heritage, a heritage that includes the world’s first cities, empires, and writing system. More than ancient vases and display cases were affected. The invasion began a grim era of sectarian violence and lawlessness in the very land that developed the state, legal codes, and recorded history itself. That era continues. “These are still very tough days,” says Abdul-Amir Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist who today is working on a doctorate at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook. I first met Hamdani in May 2003 on the sidewalk outside U.S. military headquarters in the southern city of Nasiriya, where he was desperately attempting to get help to stop the vandals poaching ancient sites. “There is still nothing protecting many sites from looting and destruction.
Looting, particularly in southern Iraq, which was the center of ancient Mesopotamia, had already begun in earnest in the late 1990s and grew to alarming proportions by 2004 and 2005, long after the National Museum was secured. The United States, its allies, and the fledgling government of post-Saddam Iraq did little to address the sources of the problem. Looting notwithstanding, Hamdani says that today’s principal threat is unbridled development; he served time in jail a few years ago for protesting construction on ancient sites. It is true that, now, foreign archaeologists are working in the northern part of Iraq called Kurdistan. A few western excavators are even digging in the southern regions that have long been off-limits. Looting at archaeological sites has decreased. But young archaeologists in the country long ago drifted to other less controversial and more remunerative work as the older generation retired, emigrated, or died.
More ominously, a new generation of Iraqis has grown up without any access to the impressive network of museums across the country that were once crowded with schoolchildren. They know little of their ancient past. Many Iraqi politicians today have a bent toward Islamic fundamentalism that is no friend to secular archaeology. Liwaa Semeism, the tourism minister overseeing the State Board of Antiquities, is a member of a splinter Shiite party. He has reduced the board’s authority and is openly hostile to foreigners. American archaeologists are now forbidden to excavate in Iraq until a trove of Jewish artifacts removed by the U.S. government is returned. And Semeism recently suggested that Germans might not be welcome either until the famous Babylonian Ishtar Gate—the model for the National Museum gateway—is returned.
The National Museum of Iraq today has beautifully renovated galleries and state-of-the-art climate control and security systems run by a staff that still consists of a core of underfunded but dedicated curators. But despite all the effort and money lavished on it by foreign governments, the museum remains closed to all but the most senior VIPs in an attempt to protect it. The fear is that throwing the museum’s doors open to the public exposes the collection and the newly-restored building to risk from another attack.
New elections later this month could bring greater political stability to the country. Eventually, as they have done from Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam, Iraqi leaders may again see their heritage as a major asset. “If you want to think about unity, then the ancient past is a broadly shared culture,” says Elizabeth Stone, a SUNY Stony Brook archaeologist who spent years excavating in Iraq. “Ancient Mesopotamia was real, and that could be used as a basis for natural unity.”
Hamdani will be returning to his home country this summer to continue his research. More than half of the stolen objects from the National Museum have been recovered, the gaping hole in the gate has since been carefully patched, and the tanks are gone. It is worth noting that there were no follow-up congressional hearings or independent investigations to pinpoint the parties responsible for the negligence connected to the museum debacle. No one in the U.S. military was criticized, demoted, or court-martialed. A Marine, who blamed Iraqis for using the site as a base to fight the Americans, wrote the only formal report on the matter.
The chaos that engulfed this land may finally be receding. A decade later, however, the true cost to our understanding of such a rich share of humanity’s heritage has yet to be tallied.
Published: December 23, 2012
WHEN the Taliban blasted the famous Bamiyan Buddhas with artillery and dynamite in March 2001, leaders of many faiths and countries denounced the destruction as an act of cultural terrorism. But today, with the encouragement of the American government, Chinese engineers are preparing a similar act of desecration in Afghanistan: the demolition of a vast complex of richly decorated ancient Buddhist monasteries.
The offense of this Afghan monument is not idolatry. Its sin is to sit atop one of the world’s largest copper deposits.
The copper at the Mes Aynak mine, just an hour’s drive south of Kabul, is to be extracted under a roughly $3 billion deal signed in 2007 between Afghanistan and China’s Metallurgical Group Corporation. The Afghan finance minister, Omar Zakhilwal, recently said the project could pump $300 million a year into government coffers by 2016. But the project has been plagued by rumors of corruption; there was widespread talk of a $30 million kickback involving the former minister of mines, who resigned.
In 2009, archaeologists were given a three-year deadline to salvage what they could at Mes Aynak, but raising money, securing equipment and finding experienced excavators took up more than half of that time. So the focus now is solely on rescuing objects. An international team of archaeologists is scrambling to save what it can before the end of this month, when it must vacate the central mining zone, at the heart of the Buddhist complex.
The task is herculean: more than 1,000 statues have been identified, along with innumerable wall paintings, fragile texts and rare wooden ornamentation. And the excavators can only guess at what may lie in older layers. There is no time to dig deeper.
From about the third century until the ninth century, Afghanistan served as a bridge between India and China and played a key role in shaping the Buddhism that swept across Central Asia. At Mes Aynak, monks and artisans built an astonishing array of temples, courtyards and stupas, as well as whole towns of workshops and homes for miners. (Even then, Mes Aynak was exploited for its copper.)
Afghanistan was home to an extraordinary mix of Nestorian Christians, Persian Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jews and, eventually, Muslims. New scholarship based on finds at ancient sites like Mes Aynak suggests that Islam arrived here not with sudden fire and sword, but as a slowly rising tide. This was an Afghanistan of cosmopolitan wealth and industry, and of religious innovation, devotion and tolerance, at a time when Europe was mired in the Dark Ages.
Many statues and paintings will be saved for museum exhibitions, but the potential for understanding a key piece of Afghan history — and for drawing future tourists — will soon be lost. Deborah Klimburg-Salter, a scholar of art and archaeology who recently visited the site, told me that Mes Aynak “would be of great historical value not only for the history of Afghanistan but the whole region — if they could slow down, excavate and document properly.”
It’s ironic: a company based in China, which received Buddhism via Afghanistan, will destroy a key locus of that transmission. Washington, which condemned the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, is standing by as Kabul sacrifices its cultural heritage for short-term revenue.
The destruction is not just a cultural travesty. It may not even result in the advertised economic benefits for some time to come. World Bank experts told me that large-scale mining is not likely to take place at Mes Aynak for years. For one thing, there is no smelter to process the ore and no railroad to carry the material to China. An August rocket attack by Taliban militants on the mining camp prompted the Chinese workers to evacuate the heavily guarded site. The tenacious archaeologists, mostly Afghans, stayed behind.
There is still hope that the Afghan government might allow archaeologists to remain at the central complex past Dec. 31. “We’re hoping we get more time,” Philippe Marquis, the director of the French archaeological mission in Afghanistan and a lead scientist on the project, told me. There is no reason archaeology and mining operations can’t coexist at the site. But archaeologists fear the government wants to close the site to researchers and reporters to avoid embarrassing images of dynamited monasteries.
The looming deadline is not Mr. Marquis’s only worry. New Taliban attacks might prompt the Chinese to abandon the site and stop paying for the security forces that protect the area. That could invite looting by desperately poor Afghans. An ancient Buddhist statue can sell for tens of thousands of dollars in the dark, unregulated corners of the international art market.
Last month, Buddhist protesters marched in Bangkok, denouncing the planned demolition of Mes Aynak. An American filmmaker has raised $35,200 on Kickstarter to document the controversy. Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan recently said it was “the duty of all” Afghans to preserve what remains of the country’s Buddhist heritage.
But there are few scholars with the political pull to bring the matter into the international spotlight, and the United Nations has all but ignored the matter. A Unesco official told me he hoped that “some accommodation could be made for the parallel activities of archaeology and mining,” but the organization hasn’t held the government and company accountable.
The looming devastation at Mes Aynak is but the latest example of threats to cultural treasures. Recently, the Egyptian Islamist leader Murgan Salem al-Gohary caused an international stir when he mused that the Sphinx and the pyramids at Giza should be flattened. And this summer, Islamist rebels smashed Sufi tombs in Timbuktu, Mali, an act some have called a war crime.
Whether for economic gain or ideological purity, destroying humanity’s common heritage limits our understanding of one another, as well as of our past — something we can ill afford in today’s fractious world. “We are only breaking stones,” the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar said dismissively in 2001, when he heard the international outcry over the statues’ destruction. Even given Afghanistan’s dire financial plight, it’s not a position to accept, much less emulate.
When the Indus River swelled two years ago in central Pakistan, the floodwaters came within just three feet of overtopping an earthen embankment protecting the ancient city known as Mohenjo-Daro. At the time, archaeologists breathed a sigh of relief. But in September 2012 monsoon rains again threatened the site, lashing at the exposed walls and sparking new fears that this 4,000-year-old metropolis may be destroyed before it yields its secrets. Those secrets remain legion. Archaeologists still don’t know the city’s true size, who ruled there, or even its ancient name—Mohenjo-Daro (“Mound of the Dead”) is the site’s name in modern Sindhi. To read more.. Dowload .pdf below.
October 10, 2012
In March 2011, as she had done every Friday afternoon for years, Jenny Poche Marrache held court at her 16th-century compound in the heart of Aleppo’s sprawling ancient market. Wearing a fur-lined leather coat to ward off the spring chill, the tiny 72-year-old regaled visitors with stories of this city’s cosmopolitan past. When her great-grandfather — a Bohemian crystal merchant — arrived here two centuries ago, Aleppo had already been a hub of East-West trade for half a millennium. Carpets from Persia, silks from China and high-quality local textiles filled the warehouses and stalls. Even at the height of the Crusades, Venetian agents exchanged timber and iron for Indian spices in the city’s souks.
In the midst of Syria’s civil war, more is being lost than lives. Aleppo may be the world’s oldest continuously occupied city, dating to the era of the pyramids, and at the height of the Ottoman Empire, it was the world’s largest metropolis after Istanbul and Cairo. That antiquity, wealth and diversity left behind magnificent mosques with Mameluke minarets, Ottoman-style bathhouses, and neoclassical columns and balustrades overlooking traditional courtyards tiled with marble and splashed by fountains. But Aleppo’s legacy extends beyond historic buildings. The city welcomed people of many faiths and traditions, while its old rival Damascus, a holy city and a gateway to Mecca, was long out of bounds for Westerners. Muslims, Christians and Jews created Syria’s commercial hub and one of the most tolerant, long-lasting and prosperous communities in the Middle East. “What was sold in the souks of Cairo in a month was sold in Aleppo in a day,” Madame Poche said, quoting a Syrian adage.
As we sipped coffee the week that the civil war began, this refined, prosperous world was already long in decline. “The situation is deplorable,” Madame Poche said in French-accented English, looking with disdain at the crates of cheap Chinese shoes filling the courtyard. Neighborhood merchants complained that the local textile mills had shut down, forcing them to replenish their stock with inferior cloth from Dubai. Despite Aleppo’s status as a World Heritage Site, many old buildings were in serious disrepair. And the once-vibrant Jewish community had vanished.
Since my first visit to Aleppo two decades ago, a coalition of entrepreneurs, city planners and foreign experts began the formidable task of rescuing and restoring one of the cultural and architectural jewels of the Middle East. Last year I walked along the new promenade surrounding the moated and massive ancient citadel. I stayed at one of the bed-and-breakfasts that had sprung up amid the warrens of covered markets to cater to foreign tourists, and I visited a recently uncovered 4,500-year-old temple. At an art gallery, I chatted with a photographer who helped organize an edgy international arts festival — an event unthinkable in dour Damascus.
The growing recognition of Aleppo’s importance in Middle Eastern history and culture makes the burning of the old city all the more tragic. In recent online videos, flames crackle in the closely packed alleys of the covered bazaar, smoke billows from a medieval caravansary, and an armed fighter gestures at the collapsed dome of a 19th-century mosque. Reportedly, more than 500 shops in the 71 / 2 miles of streets within the region’s largest marketplace have been damaged. The minaret of a 14th-century school is now only a stump. The entrance of the medieval citadel is cratered, and the fortress’s huge wooden gates are gone. A car bomb last week blew out the windows of the Aleppo Museum, one of the world’s best collections of Near Eastern artifacts. And the fighting continues.
Amid the terrible human suffering — many remaining residents have no running water or electricity, and they lack food amid the nightmare of guerrilla warfare — concern about the destruction of material property can appear gratuitous. But the ancient urban fabric of Aleppo is more than an exotic tourist destination. “The Aleppo souks . . . stand as testimony to Aleppo’s importance as a cultural crossroads since the second millennium B.C.,” says Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO. She promised an investigation, though the conflict will make it hard to assess damage, much less protect what is left. “The situation is really catastrophic, as Aleppo is half destroyed,” Michel Amalqdissi, director of the Syrian government’s archaeology division, e-mailed me last week.
Nor is destruction limited to this commercial hub. Five of Syria’s six most important ancient sites reportedly have been damaged, and massive looting of the country’s ancient heritage may be underway. Archaeologists fear that the losses could dwarf those that occurred in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion. Syria has arguably the richest and most diverse history of any nation on Earth. It is home to the ruin of what may be the world’s first city, a mound near the Iraqi border called Tell Brak, as well as the famous Roman-era desert city of Palmyra, the Crusader fortress Krak des Chevaliers and some of Islam’s greatest monuments. Thousands of smaller sites encompass more than 10,000 years of human history, from Neolithic villages to Hittite strongholds, Roman forts, early Christian monasteries and Umayyad palaces. Lacking protection, these sites are open to mass theft that will feed the West’s hungry antiquities market.
The day after our coffee, Madame Poche’s son took me to lunch at a fashionable restaurant in a restored Ottoman palace in today’s Christian quarter. At the next table, a half-dozen clergy of different Christian sects drank wine and chatted while Sunni businessmen in suits talked deals nearby. At the time, Egypt’s revolution was only a distant rumble, and those I spoke with dismissed the idea of a revolt in a mercantile city tolerant of minorities. Aleppo, they noted, took in thousands of Armenians fleeing Turkey a century ago and did the same with Iraqi Christians after 2003. We didn’t know about the arrest of several boys in the southern town of Daraa that week. Three days after my lunch, the first open demonstration against the Syrian regime took place. Since then, most of Madame Poche’s family, and thousands of other Christians, have fled to Lebanon, Turkey and the West. She, however, remains in her beloved city. “I’m worried about my old house,” she e-mailed me Monday.
Aleppo’s remarkable history of diversity and tolerance — a model for a region in turmoil — is itself perilously close to becoming history. That past is an important bridge to a prosperous future that requires a well-educated populace linked to the wider world. Amid the destruction of a great city, there is more to mourn than shattered stone.
This story was recently cited in the New York Times article "Syrian Conflict Imperils Historical Treasures" By PATRICIA COHEN http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/16/arts/design/syrian-conflict-imperils-historical-treasures.html?hpw
A massive citadel built atop a 150-foot-tall hill of solid rock looms over Aleppo’s old quarter. Fortresses have risen above this northern Syrian city since Roman times. But at the heart of the citadel, amid ruins of Ottoman palaces and hidden behind high walls that date to the Crusader era, a team of German and Syrian archaeologists is clearing debris from a large pit that shows this hilltop was significant long before the Romans arrived. Here, amid clouds of dust, a battered basalt sphinx and a lion—both standing seven feet tall—guard the entrance to one of the great religious centers of ancient times, the sanctuary of the storm god Adda. Kay Kohlmeyer, an archaeologist at Berlin’s University of Applied Sciences and the excavation codirector, has spent more than 10 years peeling away the layers of rubble that conceal the rich history of this temple. He’s found that it was first constructed by Early Bronze Age peoples, then rebuilt by a succession of cultures, including the Hittites, the Indo-European empire-builders whose domain spread from Anatolia to northern Syria in the 14th century b.c. Through the millennia, as Syrian, Anatolian, and Mesopotamian cultures mixed and blurred at this ancient crossroads, Adda was known variously as Addu, Teshup, Tarhunta, and Hadad. But as artistic styles and languages came and went, the storm god’s temple endured.
On a hot April morning, Kohlmeyer welcomes me into the shade of the corrugated roof that now covers Adda’s sanctuary. As my eyes adjust to the sudden gloom, I spy a row of stone friezes of gods and mythical creatures still standing in a neat row at the far end of the temple. Their modest size (most are no taller than three feet), clear lines, and almost whimsical subjects—human figures in pointy shoes and hats, a bull pulling a chariot—seem more like a series of three-dimensional cartoon panels than a powerful and magical tableau. Yet even in the shadows, the sharply chiseled surfaces are so fresh they look as if the sculptors just laid down their tools for a lunch break.
Kohlmeyer and his team were not the first to uncover the mesmerizing friezes, which were buried when the temple was abandoned in the ninth century b.c. Trenches that date to six centuries later show that Hellenistic people, perhaps digging for valuables, exposed some of the reliefs. Awed by what they found, and possibly fearful of desecrating an ancient holy site, they left the stones intact. Exposed for a century or so until it was swallowed again by debris, the temple may have been an early Near Eastern tourist attraction. And if archaeologists, preservationists, and Syrian government officials have their way, the site will soon offer visitors the rare opportunity to tread the floor of a 5,000-year-old place of worship.
At work since 1996, the team is just now wrapping up excavations and preparing the site for the construction of a museum supported by the World Monuments Fund and the Agha Khan Trust. But the ambitious project actually originated as an offhand joke. While Kohlmeyer was laboring on a gritty salvage dig at a remote Bronze Age site along the Euphrates River, a Syrian official suggested that he find a more civilized spot to excavate—like the Aleppo citadel. Securing permission from Syria’s bureaucracy to dig in the middle of one of the country’s most important national monuments—in what many believe is the world’s oldest continually inhabited city—was so improbable as to be funny. “It is as if the Chinese wanted to excavate the Tower of London,” says Kohlmeyer, who sports a trim mustache and brown hair down to his shoulders. But he took the suggestion seriously and, miraculously, got the permit. Kohlmeyer’s sensitivity to later Muslim-era sites may have helped. (His wife Julia Gonnella is an archaeologist who specializes in the Islamic period, and is now responsible for analyzing artifacts from the upper levels of the citadel.) “My friend was astonished to learn that his joke became a reality,” says Kohlmeyer.
He already had reason to believe that the temple of the storm god lay under the later Byzantine and Islamic layers. After World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which had long controlled the region, the French occupied Syria under a secret agreement with the British. They made the citadel their key base in Aleppo, and in the 1920s a French scholar noticed a slab with a Hittitestyle relief that had been reused in a medieval structure. French archaeologists dug into a nearby storage building, which had filled with trash and rubble over many centuries. Ducking through a narrow passage in a wall on the left side of the temple, just where the line of friezes at the rear of the temple begins, Kohlmeyer takes me into the cellar of the storage building. The French had cleared this space, reaching the temple pavement. But they abandoned their work just shy of the first carved slab, leaving behind a trowel and an empty bottle of champagne gleefully excavated by Kohlmeyer’s team. “A half-meter more, and all of these would have been in the Louvre,” he says, gesturing at the row of jaunty figures. By the second season, in 1997, Kohlmeyer had found the first relief, and to his delight was sure he had located a remarkably intact temple that would give him a unique glimpse into the religious architecture, beliefs, and practices of the ancient Near East over a vast span of time. Since then, he and his team have expanded the dig. Most of what is visible today dates to the period around 900 b.c., when small neo-Hittite kingdoms that arose after the collapse of the Hittite empire dotted the region. But the temple has more ancient antecedents as well as astonishing continuity. Kohlmeyer has been able to trace the complicated story of building, destruction, and renovations at the site over two millennia, offering an intimate picture of the great and sometimes subtle changes wrought over time by the storm god’s devotees.
Aleppo’s ancient origins still lie hidden under the citadel and surrounding city. But as early as 2400 b.c., the rulers of the prosperous city of Ebla made a 35-mile pilgrimage here to what likely was a modest place of worship where sacrifices were offered to Adda. “The storm god was the archetypal deity in Syria and Anatolia,” says Billie Jean Collins, an expert in the ancient Near East at Atlanta’s Emory University. Mesopotamians and Egyptians depended primarily on irrigated fields, but those living to the north and west counted on rainfall to sustain their crops. That made the storm god the preeminent deity. The Hebrew god Yawheh was originally considered a storm god, she adds. Whatever his name, this masculine deity was typically depicted carrying a weapon, or a thunderbolt, as a symbol of his power.
Tablets from Ebla describe the rulers’ contributions to renovating Adda’s temple, which was built on the bedrock of the natural hill. In one corner of the covered area, Kohlmeyer points to rough stones covered with plaster—today all that can be seen of the structure patronized by Ebla’s royal family. A curious deposit of small and finely worked bronze ceremonial spearheads—similar to those found by the late-19th-century German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann at Troy—were the only artifacts Kohlmeyer recovered from the early temple. By 1800 b.c., Aleppo had become the center of the short-lived Yamhad Empire, which was populated largely by Amorites, a Semitic people first mentioned by Mesopotamian scribes in the mid-third millennium b.c. as nomads from the west. Cuneiform texts from Mari, a city far to the southeast on the Euphrates, describe the giant seated figure of the storm god—by then known as Addu—in the place of honor within the sanctuary, with a smaller sun god on his knee. The layout of this renovated temple was the same as the original, offering a suitably impressive home to the esteemed god.
Lebanese cedar spanned the roof of the central hall, which measured about 90 feet by 55 feet. The temple was at least 15 feet high, and the northern wall was 33 feet thick. That thickness, combined with evidence of a wooden staircase, hint at a multi-floored building that may have risen to an even more significant height, says Kohlmeyer. This structure, he adds, may have been similar to a small number of tower temples built in the region during the Middle Bronze Age (2000–1570 b.c.). Fire eventually destroyed the building, but patrons again came to its rescue and at least partially restored the temple. The basic shape—nearly square with a northern altar opposite the main entrance to the south— remained unchanged. It, too, may have looked like a tower from a distance.
By the 14th century b.c., the Hittites were expanding from Anatolia into what is now northern Syria and exerting a strong influence over the region. Reconstructing the temple yet again, the new architects seem to have reoriented the building along Hittite lines. That meant shifting the central altar to the eastern wall so that it was not visible from the main entrance. In the new design, worshipers entered the temple and then turned right to see the storm god, now called Teshup. The central hall also was narrowed—either to accommodate that change or because Lebanese cedar was too expensive or not available. The old central altar was covered, and some of the plain stone slabs lining the walls were replaced with figures carved in a vibrant Hittite style.
An array of fantastical gods—and even carvings that imitate windows and shutters typical of a Hittite place of worship—decorated the temple in this era. Some of the new panels show bull-men with tails, similar to depictions found near the Hittite capital of Hattusa in north-central Turkey. But, with their curly hair, they bear a striking resemblance to an ivory plaque found in Megiddo far to the south in modern-day Israel—a hint of the extent of the cultural and political connections during this period. And the new masters of Aleppo added the magnificent basalt lion and sphinx in front of the temple doors. Similar statues guard the entrances to Hittite temples and city gates far to the north. Those two figures are imposing, but the strange and delightful carving of a fish-man that sits nearby steals the show. Just over six feet tall, he holds a pinecone and bucket—symbols of purification that are found in reliefs that decorate later Assyrian palaces. His feet poke out from his scaled tail. The subject and quality of this frieze hints at an artist familiar with the latest Mesopotamian styles, so different from the smaller and more cartoonish Hittite approach to wall decoration.
With its revamped floor plan, substantial statues, and array of styles, the new structure was the product of a cosmopolitan period, when the old northern Syrian traditions absorbed Anatolian and Mesopotamian influences. But by the 11th century b.c., the Hittites were history. And, yet again, the temple at Aleppo reflects the ever-changing Middle East. The Hittite temple was destroyed and a new sanctuary arose in its place. The central altar was restored to the position it had in the original plan and a king’s image placed next to that of the storm god. Adjacent to the ruler’s image is an inscription that gives important insight into an era largely shrouded in mystery.
When the long-powerful Hittite Empire crumbled around 1190 b.c., after a series of civil wars, a complicated tapestry of peoples and languages emerged in the region. But it is hard to discern what took place in this transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. Trade collapsed, major cities were abandoned, and small villages predominated. The Near East appears to have suffered through a dark age from the collapse of the Hittite Empire until 1000 b.c. “It is dark because we have so few inscriptions,” says London University’s David Hawkins, one of the few specialists fluent in Luwian, a language related to Hittite and used in southern Anatolia and northern Syria during this period.
Scholars long blamed invasions by the so-called “Sea Peoples” mentioned in Egyptian chronicles for the disruption and chaos across the Near East. But archaeological evidence for such an invasion is scanty. Hawkins suspected that a contraction of trade set off migrations of peoples in the Mediterranean basin that didn’t necessarily devastate the region or its ancient traditions. He has already traced a link between the names of old Hittite kings and those of the lords of Iron Age towns in the area, including the ruler of Carchemish, an important site that straddles the border between Turkey and Syria. The so-called dark age, it appears, may not have been so dark after all, and could have been a time of continuity rather than widespread disruption.
Eager to find inscriptions, Hawkins visited Aleppo in 2003, but returned to Britain disappointed. Ten days later, Kohlmeyer uncovered the king’s inscription. “I called Hawkins, and he arrived the day after,” Kohlmeyer recalls. Incised in Luwian hieroglyphics, the text is a set of cult instructions focused on the storm god and mentioning the king’s name. The discovery confirmed that this was indeed the storm god’s sanctuary. But what caught Hawkins’s eye was the mention of Taita, ruler of a people called the Patasatini. He contends that the proper translation is Palestin. That would make the king of the Philistines responsible for restoring the storm god’s temple to its former glory.
The Philistines (whose name survived as a geographical term describing “Palestine”) are probably the Peleset, one of the Sea Peoples who invaded Egypt in 1180 b.c. They made pottery similar to that produced by Mycenaeans and other peoples in the Aegean Sea, and settled the eastern Mediterranean coast from Gaza to Turkey. The new inscription complements two found decades ago near the major Syrian city of Hama, south of Aleppo, which reference both Taita and his queen. The king, Hawkins says, likely ruled over a substantial part of Syria.
Kohlmeyer also found a fragment of an inscription on a lion statue that mentions Carchemish and Egyptian horses, hinting that this ruler was more than simply a local leader. “This brings Aleppo into the international sphere,” says Hawkins. “And there seems to be continuity after the fall of the Hittites.” Archaeologists have found ceramics in northern Syria that appear to have been influenced by styles popular along the Mediterranean coast in this period. But Kohlmeyer, aware of the find’s political implications in a country with 400,000 Palestinian refugees, downplays the inscription’s significance. “I worry that this could become a pilgrimage site for Palestinians,” he says.
There was one last temple restoration around 900 b.c. by an unknown patron. This time, slabs portraying demons, monsters, and gods were added. A warrior-goddess, perhaps Ishtar, is dressed like a man. Eerie half-scorpion, half-human creatures stride by. And, in a long relief, the storm god himself, clean shaven, wearing a conical cap with horns, and clad in a kilt with a dagger, carries a pointed club as he mounts an old-fashioned Hittite chariot drawn by a bull. Protective winged figures—perhaps resembling the cherubim that decorated Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, which was built at this time—flank the altar. Depictions of winged creatures at Solomon’s temple may have been decorated in gold, and though no gold has been found at Aleppo, these reliefs could have once been sheathed in it.
An international array of styles is apparent on the final reliefs, and the artists may have spoken a polyglot of Luwian, Phoenician, and Aramaic as they chiseled away. Some of their innovations turn up later in the palaces of the great Assyrian rulers. “We still think of Mesopotamia as the center of civilization,” says Kohlmeyer. “That is wrong—influence went in both directions. These sculptures show that what originated in northern Syria eventually appears in Assyria.”
But before a new temple floor could be laid, a disastrous fire struck. Some of the reliefs were still unfinished, and remains of posts hint at scaffolding that was in place in the final days. There would be no reconstruction. In Hellenistic times, probably around 300 b.c., the Hittite altar was uncovered but not touched. Standing by the east wall, Kohlmeyer points out the ancient trench dug by the Greeks, which the modern team re-excavated. A people who believed in the storm god named Zeus—who like his Eastern cousin was chief of the pantheon and often depicted wielding a weapon— may have respected the site as sacred. There was a political angle to that consideration as well, says Collins, since showing respect for local gods was a smart way for newcomers to negotiate a peaceful coexistence with the locals. Over time, however, the trench was filled in and the friezes were forgotten. “This is one of the few places in Syria you can see such clear stratigraphy,” says Kohlmeyer, pointing up at the innumerable layers that begin with the time of Alexander the Great and stack up until the final days of the Ottoman Empire.
There is still more to discover. Kohlmeyer guides me to a deep trench behind the old central altar. A couple of local workers remove the plywood and sandbags that cover the 16-foot-deep excavations. Below are blank stone slabs— perhaps part of a corridor running around the temple. “This may have been part of the outer facade in the early second millennium b.c.,” he says, as I back away from the crumbling edge of the hole. The trench offers tantalizing hints at what remains to be found. Kohlmeyer is hopeful that once he clears the edges of the site, further clues to the temple’s outer precincts will emerge. Officials in Damascus, however, want work completed so that a museum can be built. Construction is slated to begin next year. A steel roof will protect the fragile temple remains, and the number of visitors will be strictly controlled.
As we climb out of the temple area and make our way through the gate to a stone-paved lane, we’re immersed in a sea of Syrian children in blue-andwhite uniforms. “I like working out in the open air in the countryside,” he says wistfully. An archaeologist digging in the center of a city whose citizens firmly believe is the oldest continuously inhabited one, he’s a prize guest at dinner parties, and the necessary socializing distracts him from his work. But there are advantages. He and his wife and daughter live in small century-old house on the citadel, far above the noise and dust of town. And late at night, when the tourists are gone and the citadel’s gates are locked up, silence descends. Then it is just Kohlmeyer, his family, and the storm god.
Reporting by Andrew Lawler