The Damascus Citadel, SYRIA — It was an urgent message concerning a destroyed mosaic—an artifact dating back to the Byzantine era. Berhalia is a village about 30 kilometers west of Damascus, in an area that has seen much fighting, and which has slipped out of government control more than once. The simple message from the villagers arrived at the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in mid-July, 2013. DGAM is part of the Syrian Ministry of Culture, and the information communicated from residents in Berhalia was that it might be possible to recover a severely damaged archaeological treasure from rebels who had taken possession of it.
The thousands of small-colored tiles, called tesserae, were initially impossible to identify because the archaeological context had been substantially demolished, as had the building which housed the antiquity. But the mosaic chips were discovered to depict scenes from Syrian history. It was also discovered that the surface area had been approximately 60 square meters in size. Decorated with geometrical ornaments, the antiquity consists of two rectangular panels. One of these features an orthogonal pattern of perpendicular, intersecting four-pointed stars in tangent, the overlapping sectors forming lozenges, alternately recumbent and upright. The second, only partially conserved, is decorated with a large star of two interlaced squares inscribed in a circle. The heaps of tesserae date to around the second half of the fourth century, says Dr. Komait Abdalla, director of DGAM’s scientific laboratories, located in the Damascus Citadel.
Eventually, a Berhalia local, apparently a former rebel sympathizer who had also been a student at Damascus University, took an interest in the mosaic, located not far from the home he and his family had been forced to flee months earlier. Contact was then made with Syrian army units in the area. A meeting took place that included a delegation of local citizens and a group of rebel militiamen, some of whom had been known to the villagers before the crisis erupted. It was the militiamen who had possession of the small pieces of the 15-century old mosaic. The people of Berhalia, like so many other Syrians this observer has met, feel deeply connected to their cultural heritage, and they pled their case to fighters on both sides of the conflict. Spare the country’s antiquities from the ravages of war—this was their message. An eyewitness reported that the hardened fighters appeared somehow moved, and soon a delegation of specialists in archaeological preservation left Damascus for Berhalia village to investigate.
Some locals hint that money may have changed hands as well, but not wanting to encourage would-be entrepreneurs intent on buying and selling Syria’s past (already a prevalent problem), no one is saying for sure. One member of the community put it this way: “Who really cares much one way or another, given the continuing maelstrom here, as long as a part of Syrian cultural heritage remains under its citizen’s protective care?” It is a sentiment this observer has heard expressed more than a few times by Syrians desperately wanting an end to the violence and the soonest possible return to normal life.
At any rate, more than a thousand pounds of tesserae, each piece measuring approximately ¾ inch by ¾ inch, were transported by military-style vehicle to Damascus for safekeeping. It was at this point that Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, DGAM’s director, along with some of his colleagues, made it their personal mission not just to preserve the pieces, but to actually restore the priceless antiquity. The piles of tesserae were moved to the antiquities restoration laboratory.
One of several rare mosaics discovered in the Damascus region, the mosaic of Berhalia is today being restored by a team of 15 students under the tutelage of Muhammad Kayed and Burhan al-Zaraa, of Syria’s Archaeological Scientific Reconstructive Laboratories. When their work is complete, the restored mosaic will be exhibited in the 900-year-old Damascus Citadel, which, as part of the Ancient City of Damascus, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the course of visiting damaged archeological sites in Syria, this observer spent time with this remarkable and skilled team of students. One day, as four of them took a break from their work and offered me tea and a local pastry, I felt comfortable posing a few questions. Their answers were given spontaneously and in no certain order. Fortunately, I had the assistance of Nuhad, a Damascus University student of Arabic and English translation. Nuhad is from a village near Homs, but spends her time these days in Damascus due to the many security problems in her area. Below are excerpts from the conversation which took place that day, with names changed at the students’ request.
Q: How does it make you feel, as you go about this work you are doing, knowing there are people in Syria committing atrocities of the sort seen in some of the videos that have been uploaded to You Tube? Are you afraid? Do you worry about getting kidnapped?
The first to answer was Hanan, a twenty-something student of pharmacology from Latakia who since last winter has been volunteering her time on archaeological restoration efforts.
A: Like most of the world, and I believe like just about everyone in Syria, certainly among my friends and fellow students—we are horrified by what is happening, especially by groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al Nursa, in eastern Syria. This has never happened in our country, and it certainly is not and never has been part of our secular culture. But what can we do about it? Our army is making big sacrifices to stop it so we can return to a normal life. Yes, I am afraid, and so are most of our friends. We take care and we go to classes and return to our homes before dark. Our restoration work is done in the center of Damascus which so far has been mainly safe, although last year 17 students were killed or wounded by a rebel mortar at Damascus University. We usually stay home at night, but here in Damascus security is better than in the villages and countryside, so if it has been quiet for a few days we might go to a cafe and meet with friends. It is true that there are many kidnappings, but usually those held for payment or ransom are known to be from rich families or an important political personality. I am not part of these groups. Unfortunately, like more than half of the Syrian people who used to work, my father and uncles have no job.
Q : “How does it make you feel knowing that the US has begun arming Syrian rebels with anti-tank weapons and other heavy weaponry? Does that increase your level of fear?”
Abed, an engineering student at Baath University in Homs, was the next to speak.
A: It is very scary, because when will this end? Most of my friends believe that outsiders are keeping the war going because they think they can win it. Does the USA really know or understand who they are arming and what the fighters will do after you give them training? Do you think these jihadists love you because you helped them against a nationalist Arab regime which rejects the Zionist occupation of Palestine? We worry about when it will end. Who can stop it if other countries keep feeding the killing? You know very well what has happened to us. More than half of our families have been displaced. How can we ever rebuild our country that we love? When will the war end? What will be left? Sure we are scared. My mother is sick from worrying. She cries every day. We have no idea what became of many of our relatives across Syria. And what about DAASH? They control Raqqa Governorate and now parts of Iraq, and they plan to create a proto caliphate of some kind with part of Syria included. We have relatives in Raqqa. Will Syria become like Iraq or Somalia? Or worse? This is what I and all my friends worry about, and we feel powerless to stop or even influence what is happening out there. Like all Syrians, we are exhausted from these years of war. We are so tired and just want it all to end. Are we mistaken? What do you think?
Q: The media speculates a lot these days about ISIS or DAASH-type groups because they appear to be the most extreme off-shoot of Al Qeada and are killing Shia Muslims and Christians more or less where they find them. How do you and your friends view DAASH?
The question was taken by Zeina, a Palestinian business student, whose family in Yarmouk camp lost its home and business to jihadist militia in 2012.
A: Ok, this is what happened. Most of these groups we never heard of, but a few years ago, there were a few reports about extremist jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. We just assumed they were crazy or joking. I never dreamed they could get support and operate here because Syria is, and has historically been, very secular, and we have always respected others’ political opinions, ethnic backgrounds and religions. We have never experienced this kind of hatred. It is true that in Syria we share festivities with all religions and traditions, and we like to do so because we learn from them, and we all enjoy other people’s backgrounds and culture. We are not religious fanatics in Syria and never have been. Hopefully we never will be. This is natural, and normal—isn’t it?—to share our neighbors traditions? You do it in your country, I am sure. I know you do, because we have family in America and also in Europe.
So we in Syria were as surprised as anyone when DAASH came here and started imposing crazy rules on us—especially on women. Women are being treated like slaves. What is wrong with these gangs? They are not Muslims at all, in my opinion. They are perverted, in my opinion. I am religious. I am Muslim. I am Sunni like they claim to be, and I have studied the Holy Koran all my life. I try to follow its teachings, but I have never found the kind of nonsense they claim to be ‘true’ Islam. Have they ever studied the Koran? For sure, some Sheiks incite them.
Q: With all that is happening outside of Syria’s Ancient Citadel located here in the Old City of Damascus how do you feel about being here and doing this work nearly every day?
At this point, Jilan, up until now quiet, spoke out. Jilan is an English Literature student at Damascus University:
A: Oh my God! Are you a psychiatrist (laughing)? I need one for sure, and I sometimes wonder myself. My mother asked me this same question not long ago. Some of the many reasons you might find strange, but please allow me to give you a couple.
With Allah as my witness, I feel secure, somehow, being deep inside these ancient walls, and I wish my family were here with me. I worry about them all the time. I feel safe here also because many people have told me that these walls can withstand mortars, which is what we usually receive randomly from rebels based in East Gouta and areas south of Damascus. Even artillery shells or many bombs cannot reach us. As you see it is so quiet and peaceful in here. You hear no shelling or rockets or jet planes in the sky.
Another thing I like about working on restoring antiquities is that it’s as though I am honoring those who came before me in our history and culture. I like to think about what their lives must have been like compared to ours. I feel that I am doing something useful during this terrible time, and that I am showing confidence in my beloved country, that we will somehow get through this and eventually rebuild what has been damaged, what we are doing here in our simple restoration laboratory. Plus I love the friends I have made here! As we work, we have plenty of time to talk and get to know one another. Finally, we sometimes, but not very often these days, meet foreigners who come to see our work and express support for what we are doing here. Thank you for visiting us. I wish American and other international students could come and join us. They would like this work I am sure.