Archaeology and cultural belonging in contemporary Syria: the value of archaeology to religious minorities Emma Loosley

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Archaeology and cultural belonging in contemporary Syria: the value of archaeology to religious minorities

Emma Loosley


This paper has evolved out of a series of community projects that I have initiated in Syria since 1997. My hypothesis is that a knowledge of the archaeological remains and religious traditions of a region bring local people more in touch with their cultural roots and encourage a sense of belonging. This is particularly the case when a religious minority feels disenfranchised by the majority group. By creating a sense of self that relates closely to the local landscape, minorities will feel more integrated and less inclined to emigrate as they develop a shared sense of community. In 1997 I began taking groups of Christians from Aleppo to the Limestone Massif, to the west of the city, in order to explain the abandoned late antique villages that dominate the landscape to them. These groups ranged in age from late teens and early twenties through to pensioners and we discussed how this kind of cultural awareness tied them more closely to the land than they had previously thought. In turn this caused them to question their self-imposed perception of themselves as ‘outsiders’ and to think in terms of a wider ‘Syrian’ identity. From 2000 onwards I have worked with a community in the Syrian desert that mixes Christians and Muslims, bedu and agricultural workers. Boundaries are fluid and village worship centres on the ancient monastery of Mar Elian. Mar Elian (St Julian) is venerated by all villagers and this perception of ancient ties means that art historical research into the site has been welcomed by the community as a whole as it is seen to validate their claims of the power of their saint. Taking these two projects as case studies I shall try and evaluate the importance of archaeology as an academic discipline in the contemporary Middle East.


Community projects; archaeological heritage; landscape; religious minorities.

Introduction: the Syrian education system and the study of the past

In Syria the choice of subject studied at university is decided by the state with a points system. Students can request preferences among the five national universities but they have

World Archaeology Vol. 37(4): 589–596 Debates in World Archaeology a 2005 Taylor & Francis ISSN 0043-8243 print/1470-1375 online DOI: 10.1080/00438240500395912

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little choice over destination and practically no options when it comes to choosing a subject. Places are allocated according to the points gained in the baccalaureate examination taken at 17 or 18. Students choose at 14 to study a science or arts baccalaureate and most choose science, knowing that if they take the arts and literature pathway then the highest status subjects will be closed to them. Every Syrian schoolchild aspires to be a doctor or an engineer as these are the professions which grant the highest social status, the steadiest and most lucrative career prospects and, an important consideration in an economically precarious society, the most valuable skills on foreign visa applications.

In this way other disciplines are downgraded as unimportant – a student studying archaeology for example is pitied as someone who was not bright enough to gain a place to study a more exclusive subject. While many young Syrian archaeology students are bright and enthusiastic, a significant proportion make it clear that they are in the subject only because they failed to get high enough scores to study engineering. This obviously has a demoralizing effect across the board for all subjects and the students themselves are often pushed into studying subjects they have no vocation for, but their parents will force them to accept the ‘highest status’ option offered by the state. There is no conception of a Western, some would say privileged, ethos where students choose subjects simply on the basis of personal preference and A-starred students are just as likely to fight each other over a place to read English as they are over a place to read medicine, and engineering has a recruitment problem.

When dealing with an educational system of this nature there is little incentive for young people to study their past. Knowledge of history is vague and highly partisan, concentrating almost exclusively on Arab history after the advent of Islam in schools, and encompassing ancient Mesopotamian and Syrian culture at university level. The level attained by most students is relatively low due to a lack of books and access to foreign- language material. This general malaise with regard to the past spreads to related disciplines, such as art history, which are not recognized as courses of study in Syria and to a general lack of interest in the conservation and preservation of historic sites.

With this kind of cultural background, history is largely the hobby of a few interested amateurs but not the ‘day job’ of many people in Syria. Foreigners who study the past are viewed as exotic eccentrics who must be wealthy in order to pursue a study with no commercial value. The idea of bursaries for anything other than absolutely essential studies in medical research or civil engineering is seen as frivolous in such a poor society.

1997–8, Aleppo

In 1997 I moved to Aleppo in Syria to undertake fieldwork for my PhD. My aims were threefold; I wanted to visit a group of churches first surveyed by Georges Tchalenko in the 1950s (Baccache 1979, 1980; Tchalenko 1953, 1990) to assess their condition fifty years on, to study Syriac, an Aramaic dialect that is the liturgical language of the Syrian Orthodox Church, and finally to study the contemporary Syrian Orthodox liturgy. This was to gather data for a thesis studying the interplay between form and function in late antique Syrian churches. Having been welcomed into the local Syrian Orthodox community in the

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Hay Suryan quarter of the city, I quickly settled into a routine of Syriac lessons, church attendance and days spent hiking across the limestone massif to the west of the city.

Without any contemporary maps I was hoping to use the knowledge of local people to help me locate the villages where the churches were located but I soon discovered this to be impracticable. The inhabitants of the villages were Kurds who had settled in the region only as a result of the political upheavals of the twentieth century and who therefore were not especially knowledgeable about the history of their settlements. Back in Hay Suryan I discovered that the whole population were descendants of people from the contemporary Turkish city of S ̧ anliurfa, formerly Edessa. Their families had been evicted by the Turks in 1924 and had walked to Aleppo, where they had stayed ever since. Therefore, despite the fact that the whole region was a traditional heartland of the Syrian Orthodox Church from late antiquity to the middle ages, the current Syrian Orthodox population of Aleppo felt divorced from the countryside and saw themselves as outsiders.

Within the Christian community of Aleppo as a whole, very few people took an interest in the wider Christian heritage of the region. The few exceptions were local engineers who had written books on the limestone massif and published them through Aleppian church presses. In Syria doctors and engineers are seen as the most learned members of society and so few people sought to question the accuracy of these unedited works that were largely plagiarisms of Butler and Tchalenko (Butler 1909; Tchalenko 1953, 1990). After attending several community lectures given by engineers that were largely inaccurate plagiarism, I began to question the widespread ignorance of the local community with regard to their cultural heritage. There were, of course, several notable exceptions. The local Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo proved to be knowledgeable, although his information was largely theoretical rather than empirical, which was also the case with my Syriac tutor, Fr. Antoine, a Syrian Orthodox priest, and with the Archbishop’s former secretary and local English teacher, Farida Boulos. All three had read widely on the limestone massif but had actually visited only rarely. The final exception was a local engineer and amateur historian whose hobby was visiting these sites for his own curiosity, Samir Katerji. Samir quickly adopted me and we spent many days hiking across the hills guided by shepherds and villagers who remembered seeing ruins answering to the descriptions we gave and who accompanied us for the pleasure of hearing city gossip from Samir.

Back in Aleppo the community of Hay Suryan were beginning to question why this strange foreign girl was disappearing frequently and returning sunburned to the city and Farida, Samir and Fr. Antoine let it be known that I was there to study the Christian heritage of the region, which was their history. Informal questions over coffee with local people led to invitations to talk to the various community groups linked to the church. Samir had instituted an organization of ‘families’, social groups that met once a month for a lecture, meal and dance and who went away together on holiday each summer. The aim was to cement community ties and to provide a friendship network outside the family groups that dominate the lives of most Syrians. There were seven groups arranged around middle-aged couples, young families and young graduates, those who cared for disabled relatives and so on. Fr. Antoine quickly involved me with his group of middle-aged couples who were interested in local history and Syriac. While they were generally not too keen on hiking and leaving the comfort of the city, they were happy to listen to lectures on

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the churches scattered in the hills to the west of the city. This also awakened a general interest in church history encouraged by Fr. Antoine. An immediate effect of this was increased church attendance as the group confessed that, after Fr. Antoine’s guided tour of the church, they understood the Syriac liturgy for the first time.

Having been befriended by the ‘Mar Grigorios’ group, I was spending my evenings in the church coffee shop-cum-community centre with a group of people my own age (late teens to mid-twenties). This group comprised largely of those with vocational qualifications rather than graduates and the leading members were carpenters, plumbers, mechanics and secretaries. After a few weeks I was asked by the leader of the group, a carpenter named Yusuf, if I would lead the group on a visit to some of the places that I was working on. A Sunday was chosen and Yusuf instructed the group to dress practically in jeans and trainers, with hats, sun cream and plenty of water. As the trip was taking place in early July we planned to leave at 5 am, eating breakfast en route and planning a typical Syrian lunch (3 pm) on the return home to the city.

I planned an itinerary that started with easily accessible monuments. Many of the villages were beside country lanes and did not require any strenuous exercise to reach. However there was one village that was a walk of approximately 3–4 km from the nearest road. I had not had the opportunity to visit this site before and, since Yusuf had said to include some sites that were new to me so that I would also benefit from the trip, I included this village on the list. I had carefully checked beforehand that it would prove an interesting site for the group. Unlike the majority of the villages of the region that were occupied solely from the fourth to seventh century CE, Kafar Nabo was one of the villages that had been occupied from the first century BCE and the church I was seeking was built on top of a Roman temple to the god Nabo. By teaching the group something about the continuity of the historical record I hoped to ignite interest in these sites and spark some enthusiasm for the subject.

Immediately it was clear that the sexes took radically different views of the subject. The men and two older female community workers, my friend Farida and another teacher, were instantly caught up in the excitement of exploring a ‘new’ site. They rushed around calling me to come and look at every new discovery – Roman statues and a long Greek inscription among them. They also listened courteously to the local Kurdish population, who herded sheep in the area, and asked many questions of the shepherds, as well as keenly examining the photocopied plans from Tchalenko’s book that I carried with me. By contrast the women were largely concerned with their (unsuitable) footwear, scorned the local shepherds and became animated only when a Kurdish farmer loaned them a donkey to ride back on.

Back at the restaurant, as the females miraculously recovered enough to spend hours dancing the dabkeh, Yusuf, Farida and a small group of community leaders decided that the day had been a success. Many of the young men and a smaller proportion of women had requested further information and professed their shame that they were unaware that they had spent their entire lives only 40km away from these places and known nothing about them. Yusuf had spoken sharply to those with unsuitable footwear and pointed out that this was a valuable exercise in regaining their history. The inhabitants of the region had disappeared, presumed moved northwards into contemporary Turkey in the seventh century, and in the twentieth century the ancestors of the population of Hay Suryan had

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moved south from Turkey. Therefore he reasoned that understanding these monuments was a vital part of understanding the Christian heritage of the region, a heritage that transcended the modern state boundaries and was more understandable in terms of a region ruled as the hinterland of the great city of Antioch. It was decided that I would photocopy my site notebook for Farida who would then translate the information and act as guide on a series of future trips. When I returned in 1998 I found that this had worked well and the trips were still continuing a year later.

It was on my second period of research in Syria, in the autumn of 1998, that I was approached by Samir Katerji to achieve the same objective with an altogether less willing group. For months Samir (a devout atheist) had been annoyed by a large group of elderly men playing backgammon in the church community centre when they should have been attending mass. To Samir this was extremely disrespectful and, one Tuesday during the evening mass, he gave them an ultimatum. If they were found playing backgammon the following Sunday morning he was taking a monetary forfeit from them. Predictably, on Sunday morning they were all there as usual and Samir took a token amount of money from each man (they were largely middle-aged to elderly and relatively poor) and ordered them to meet at the community centre at 6 am the following Sunday. Then he telephoned me. Considering himself an atheist who had properly considered all the options, Samir felt that these men were alienated from the Church through ignorance and needed to be educated about their past. I was to turn up at six the next Sunday and to lead the group on an exploration that would cause them to question their relationship with the past and with the Church.

I turned up early on that Sunday morning because I was staying with Farida, who, unusually in Syria, was exceptionally organized and woke me at 5.30 am with a picnic of iced water, cucumbers and fruit to take on my travels. On reaching the church I was amazed to see that most of the men had already arrived, some bringing sons and grandsons with them, but I was to be the only female. Generally, they were practically dressed but one man in his eighties was sporting his best black suit with shirt and tie.

Despite their age, these men could walk for miles and were bursting with questions. They were as curious about the lives of the Kurdish farmers that they found living in the region as they were about the monuments that they were exploring and frequently stopped to talk to the local villagers. In one ruined chapel they spontaneously called upon a deacon among them to lead prayers and even Samir was to be found crossing himself as they sang the Lord’s Prayer. The highlight of the day was when a passing farmer gave us all a lift in his trailer to the ruins we were searching for. The success of the trip was illustrated by the fact that, before we reached Aleppo, the men had already chartered the bus for the following Sunday and ordered me to devise a new itinerary for them.

I have been back to Aleppo every year since 1998 and from Yusuf, Farida and Samir I know that these trips have continued and, indeed, have spread. Farida now takes her all- women Bible study groups on trips to the limestone massif and other Christian sites further afield. The ‘families’ or community groups still go on visits-cum-picnics and there is a demand for local speakers to talk about the Christian history of the region. It is perhaps also telling that those who have fully embraced this interest are those least likely to emigrate. Samir has an engineering degree and lived in Sweden for a while but says that he was unable to live so far away from his cultural roots and Yusuf’s social circle is far less

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likely to move away than the graduate groups – not least because they have such a strong sense of community and ‘home’. Several weeks ago (June 2005) I was in Hay Suryan visiting friends and, naturally, I went to the community centre – the central point of social life in the area – to drink coffee and be seen. The old men were still playing backgammon and, after admiring the improvement in my Arabic (non-existent when I lived in Aleppo), they took my elbow and drew me into the snooker and ping-pong room. There on the wall were two photographs I had taken of them, blown up to poster size: one of them praying in a ruined church and the other of them standing on the back of a tractor driven by a smiling Kurdish farmer.

2000–present, Qaryatayn

During my time in Aleppo I became friends with a monastic community in central Syria, in a monastery approximately 90km north of Damascus. While Deir Mar Musa al- Habashi1 (the monastery of St Moses the Abyssinian) is relatively well known – due to the mediaeval fresco cycle in the monastery church, the only complete cycle still extant in the Levant (Dodd 1992, 2001) – in 2000 the community was given another, less glamorous and visually spectacular monastery.

Dayr Mar Elian esh-Sharqi (the monastery of St Julian of the East) today stands approximately 500m to the west of the town of Qaryatayn, a shabby mud-brick structure; very little of the ancient monastery remains above ground today. Situated on the old Damascus–Palmyra highway the town boasts a substantial tell and owes its existence to the presence of a spring. As the last settlement before Palmyra, Qaryatayn was a staging post for the major caravan routes until the advent of motor vehicles killed the town’s most lucrative trade as a rest-stop on the Damascus–Palmyra journey. Unfortunately, the town with its current population of 28,000 people, approximately 20 per cent of whom are Christians and who are descended from an unbroken Christian tradition of at least 1,500 years, forms one of the most economically and socially deprived communities in contemporary Syria.

It was knowing this that I arrived in Qaryatayn in 2000 to undertake a survey of the site with a view to future excavation. Immediately it became apparent that the attitude of the local population was unlike that of Hay Suryan in Aleppo. Whereas in Aleppo I had been treated as an eccentric, but young and enthusiastic, student and quickly assimilated into local society, in Qaryatayn I was viewed with suspicion. First, they were not used to outsiders – and the concept of ‘foreign’ extended to anyone from outside the village. Fr. Jacques, from the Community of Deir Mar Musa, who had recently been appointed parish priest, was viewed with suspicion as he came from the unimaginably distant city of Aleppo. Second, any outsider interested in the monastery was viewed as a potential grave- robber come to despoil the tomb of Mar Elian (St Julian).

Having established that the last overseas residents of the village were an eccentric Danish Protestant missionary who slept with her gun and Gertrude Bell, who was a frequent visitor in the early years of the twentieth century, I set about trying to make contact with the villagers by displaying my ignorance. Finding that the town was inhabited by a mixture of bedu and fellahin, I befriended the patriarch of the largest Christian bedu

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clan and questioned him about his childhood. Over a series of meetings in the home shared by the whole vast Bayt Habib when the herds were in town I spoke to Abu Naseef about his memories of the monastery going back to the 1920s and 1930s. Slowly other members of the family began to visit me at the site and his daughter was able to give me valuable information on her life as a resident of the monastery until almost all the mud-brick structures had collapsed in the 1980s due to termite infestation.

In 2001 on 9 September, the annual festival of Mar Elian, I arranged a small display in the church explaining who I was and why the exploration of the monastery was important. Over the course of the day between 1,500 and 2,000 people read the display and handled the random surface finds given to me by villagers. They then began to approach me over the coming months with their recollections of the site and stories of vanished village traditions. As these were collated they were made into a small museum in one of the three remaining mud-brick chambers on site.

Having broken the ice the local population then changed their attitudes to the proposed excavation and they have been very supportive since the archaeological project began in full in 2002. They say that local people always recognized the importance of the site and now they would like others to share their saint with them. The interest in ancient traditions continues, with many traditional tools being given to the monastery. It has now been decided that the site will house a small archaeological and ethnographic museum at the end of the archaeological project. In talking to local people Fr. Jacques has discovered that many villagers feel that the arrival of foreigners somehow validates their belief in the sanctity of the site and, if more appear as tourists, then history may prove the way to revitalize a dying community.


Over the course of almost ten years working with Christian communities in Syria I have found that it is a feeling of dislocation and rootlessness that is most likely to bring about emigration in the younger generations of Christians. While the reason for emigration is most commonly given as economic, it is clear that people will brave economic disadvantage if they feel that they are part of a growing and vibrant community.

By putting younger people in touch with their past and reminding them of the historical continuity of their ancestral past, as illustrated by the vast wealth of late antique monuments in contemporary Syria, many are now questioning their role in society and seeing that cultivating social responsibility and community feeling may be a more satisfactory answer for their future than flight to an alien and possibly unsympathetic culture elsewhere in the world. Ultimately this kind of community project encourages a sense of cultural belonging that creates a cohesive social force and that will hopefully stem the widespread emigration that threatens to destroy the Christian communities of the Middle East within one or two generations.

School of Arts, Histories & Cultures, University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PL

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1 The standard English transliteration for monastery is Dayr but Deir Mar Musa was restored by an Italian group and has an Italian Abbot who use the Italian spelling Deir. The monastery is now so widely known by this spelling that it is best to preserve it as all literature relating to the site is spelt in the Italian manner.


Baccache, E., under the direction of G. Tchalenko. 1979. E ́glises de village de la Syrie du nord. Vol. 2. Paris: Paul Geuthner.

Baccache, E. 1980. E ́glises de village de la Syrie du nord. Vol. 1. Paris: Paul Geuthner.
Butler, H. C. 1909. Ancient Architecture in Syria. Leyden: Publications of the Princeton

Archaeological Expeditions to Syria in 1904–5 and 1909.

Dodd, E. C. 1992. The Monastery of Mar Musa al-Habashi, near Nebek, Syria. Arte Medievale, 2nd Series, 6: 61–132.

Dodd, E. C. 2001. The Frescoes of Mar Musa al-Habashi: A Study in Medieval Painting in Syria. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Tchalenko, G. 1953. Villages antiques de la Syrie du Nord: Le Massif du Be ́lus a l’e ́poque romaine. Paris: Paul Geuthner.

Tchalenko, G. 1990. E ́glises syriennes a ́ bema. Paris: Paul Geuthner.

Emma Loosley has studied at the University of York, the Courtauld Institute of Art, the University of London and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her PhD was on the relationship between architecture and the liturgy in the early Syrian church and she currently teaches Oriental Christian and Islamic art at the University of Manchester. Her work is inter-disciplinary and encompasses archaeology, anthropology and theology as well as traditional art history.