Deir Azzour- Syria – In 1903 Ernst Herzfield, a German explorer and archeologist, passed by an area forming an angle at the meeting point of the Euphrates and Al-Khabour rivers. He stopped at a small village in east Syria called Al-Baseerah and saw a square-shaped limestone fort with towers.
You will not see what Herzfield had seen if you tried to make a similar journey to the same place these days. You will not find the fort he spoke about in his book “An Archeological Journey on the Euphrates and the Tigris.”Ignorance and Neglect
Ignorance and Neglect
“It is painful to see that random housing by residents and authorities has resulted in the disappearance of archeological sites that have survived several civilizations,” said Waddah looking at a place where an archeological wall has been replaced with a street full of stores on both sides. “What happened to Al-Baseerah sites makes one want to cry.”
The teacher,38, and resident of Al-Baseerah, which is administratively part of Deir Azzour province, 450 km from Damascus, believes that “peoples ignorance of the importance of their town’s civilizations and neglect by authorities have led to the destruction of its archeological sites. What remains today are only parts covered by houses or government buildings.”
Many share Waddah’s view. Abdul-Sattar, also a resident of Al-Baseerah, stated that “lack of citizens awareness and neglect of this town over the years resulted in the loss of its most important archeological heritage.”
Archeological Sites Only in Memory and Books
If you want to familiarize yourself with the way the town used to be before its sites were destroyed, you can call for the assistance of one of its residents who belongs to the older generation. “Decades ago, our town had a wall and towers,” said Hashem Al-Muhammad, a town resident in his 60s who still remembers how his village looked like when he was a child. “There was a dome surrounded by arches as if it was the headquarters of some sort of command. It was dark and deep, so no one had the courage to explore where it was leading to.”
This description seems similar to information listed by Herzfield in his book, stating that “Al-Baseerah village, the modern name of Karkisium, is located on the Euphrates to the south of the archeological hill; “remains of the town indicate the existence of old housing grandstands.”
In his book released in Berlin in 1911, in which he describes Al-Baseerah village, Herzfield states: “Some archeological buildings are still standing, especially in the camp measuring 50 to 40 meters with its wall, towers and inner walls built from stones and bricks looking like Byzantine tiles. There is a lot of Islamic pottery in the place, the main entrance to the camp passes through a tower on the eastern end with octangular rooms inside. The diversity in building styles at the site indicates that it was erected in different eras and that it was renovated several times.”
The area was called by different names according to the historical era: Karkazion and Karksium during Aramaic times, meaning horse racetrack, Kastroun in Greek and Circesium in Latin, meaning castle.
Karkisia or Karkisia’a in Arabic (Al-Baseerah presently) is inhabited by more than 20,000 people working mostly in agriculture and receiving stories from their ancestors that their village has been built over an archeological hill that witnessed a succession of civilizations.
Historical resources, including The Syrian Island by researcher Iskandar Daoud, indicate that the origins of Karkisium go back to the Babylonian era. According to what Herzfield wrote on Al-Baseerah, the wall and towers were built during the rule of Emperor Diglosian (284-305) who built the fort as an advanced post against attacks by Persian armies. Emperor Justian (527-565) ordered the enlargement of the force protecting the post from 6,000 to 10,000 soldiers, as told by Roman historian Procope. During Roman governor Markius, King Herms IV (579-589) invaded the site and occupied Karksium fort. History books, including The Dictionary of Countries by Yaqoot Al-Hamawi, explain that Karkisia was a lively city exporting fruits to other countries and that the struggle between the Persians and the Romans over the area lasted until the advent of Islam in the year 16 Hijra.
Al-Baseerah Fort, the Last Time
In May 1954, the General Directorate of Syrian Antiquities allowed inhabitants of Al-Baseerah to use sand surrounding the castle of their town for building purposes. It made its agreement conditional upon the preservation and maintenance of the castle. But, on 17 November of the same year, Abdullah Al-Ali, a village resident, sent a telegram to the Directorate stating: “We inform you [that] the castle has been destroyed, please save it.” According to the official registries of correspondence between the Directorate and Deir Azzour province, no action was taken to prevent what Abdullah’s telegram had warned against. It was the last time Al-Baseerah Castle was mentioned in the correspondence of concerned parties. What happened did not stop at moving sand surrounding the castle causing it to crack; the stones of its antique outer walls were used to build town houses. This likely continued for several years leading to the loss of the castle.
“Ruins of Al-Baseerah were assaulted by citizens,” said Hussein Al-Za’alan, a town resident. Standing in the town’s center, Hussein points to reddish stones used to build many houses in the village. He explains that “these are antique stones taken from the old wall and towers which used to stand on this hill.”
Many other residents confirm this information; “quantities of antique stones were removed to various parts of town,” elaborated Farooq Al-Musa, another resident. “They were sold for little money to build most of the houses here.”
Antique Lands for 4 Syrian Pounds
Despite legislation of the Antiquities Law in 1963, which stated in article 7 that “it is prohibited to destroy, change, damage or distort movable or fixed antiquities by writing or engraving or changing its shape or dismantling parts of it;” violations of the Karkisia ruins did not stop. In 1964, ten years after Abdullah’s telegram, Al-Baseerah municipality sold parts of its antique lands to citizens for four Syrian pounds per square meter. According to the chronological order of official resolutions on the area at the time, the municipality had considered that land part of its property because the General Directorate of Antiquities had not registered Karkisia Hill as a historical site under its authority. The salary of a government employee at that time was 250 Syrian pounds.
Moreover, residents who had documents proving ownership of village lands considered “historical areas” by the Directorate, filed court cases. Judicial authorities looked into these cases for several years during which citizens requested to have the freedom to handle their lands. Article 6 of the Antiquities Law states that “ownership of the land does not give the owner the right to act freely with fixed and movable antiquities that might exist above or under its surface.” Since the point was to prove that the land was indeed officially “historical,” the Directorate issued Resolution No. 147/A to register the Karkisia Hill as an antique and a historical building.
Issued in 1972, the resolution categorizes the historical hill into three areas:
a) Areas that are not allowed to be renovated or added to, but that can be rehabilitated with the same building materials.
b) Lands that have tombs where no burial nor building is allowed
c) The school areas, where its current shape and situation (as was in 1972) is not to be changed.
But listing Karkisia Hill as a historical site in records of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums did not give the site the right to have a digging antiquities team for excavating its ruins. And it did not stop violations of the area’s antiquities since most government buildings were erected on the Hill. The resolution was not respected despite the fact that listing a site means that the state and the authorities of antiquities are responsible for its protection and maintenance, according to article 2 of the Antiquities Law.
|One Probe and Alarming Results
The Hill was probed only once in 1977 by researcher As’ad Al-Mahmoud, the head of the Deir Azzour Antiquities at the time. The results of that search show that antique finds were located, among them “parts of inlaid floors,” despite the fact that only nine days were spent in the probe and that the study covered two squares of the Hill’s land, the length of each side was only four meters.The report recommended continuing probing to “follow architectural buildings to understand its dimensions and architectural style.” Al-Mahmoud explains that he requested a budget suitable for the importance of the area. “We asked for the formation of a national team to continue excavations,” he explained. “But our demands fell on deaf ears.” Government Buildings on Top of RuinsGovernment Buildings on Top of Ruins
In 1984, Abdul-Samad Heezah published a research entitled Shedding Light on the History of Old Karkisia in Al-Hawliyyat Al-Athariyyah (Annual Antiquities) magazine, which he started by stating: “There is a vital historical fact; not exploring some historical areas does not mean neglecting them.”
The same year, Al-Baseerah’s municipal council resolved not to mark the old area designed as a historical town from its plan of action at the time, which led to building other government facilities on top of the Hill. These building can be defined by comparing village record with the Directorate’s plans. These are the district’s directorate, police station, an educational complex, telephone center, Al-Ba’ath Party offices, the sports club, youth league, hand-made rugs unit and the building center.
Things did not stop at that. At the same time, Al-Baseerah municipality provided building permits to citizens on the ruins area resulting in a town built on top of a historical hill.
The striking contrast is that article 10 of the Antiquities Law states that “municipalities are not allowed to provide building or rehabilitation permits in areas near historical sites and buildings until after it has received the approval of the antiquities authorities.”
“The same antiquities law is applied to government agencies as is too common citizens, and violators are punished exactly the same way as any citizen,” stated Nasr Safan, a lawyer specialized in antiquities. “Increasing the severity of punishment on violators according to the antiquities law can decrease the rates of violating antiquities,” stated Safan pointing to article 63 of the law stating that “those whose job is to protect antiquities or fight crimes stated in this law are punished as a violator if they know or have information of such crimes committed without taking necessary action to apprehend violators.”
Abbasid Coins under a Vocational Industrial School
Despite the disappearance of the basic antique landmarks of Karkisia Hill, Al-Baseerah does not stop showing its historical identity. In 1996, while construction workers were preparing for building an industrial vocational high school, a clay jar was found containing Abbasid silver coins. It was sent to the Deir Azzour Museum (43 kilometers from Al-Baseerah).
The coins numbered 3,000. Yet the museum did not exhibit any of them and kept them in its warehouses. “Such finds are not fit for exhibition,” according to Mu’in Al-Ali, the director of the Deir Azzour Museum, in an effort to underestimate their value. “We do not have a section for Karkisia in the museum since no excavation was done at the Hill. We do not exhibit every antique find at the museum; we choose the most important for our visitors to see.”
However, Yasser Shouhan, the head of the Directorate of Antiquities and Museums in Deir Azzour, disagrees, pointing to the importance of the Karkisia Hill from an antiquities point of view. “The Karkisia Hill site is certainly as important as other sites, perhaps it will have the right opportunity to be rediscovered.” He confirms the existence of many violations at the Hill “be it buildings, random agricultural, digging irrigation canals, or unplanned electric networks, burials on top of antique hills or secret excavations and theft.” Only 523 Guards for more than 3,000 Historical Sites
“The Karkisia Hill is not the only site to be destroyed by the community,” said Bassam Jamoos, the General Director of Antiquities and Museums in Syria. “Syria has a huge number of historical sites that does not correspond with the number of guards. In fact, we need more guards to protect our antiquities.”
There are 523 guards working for the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums distributed to 47 museums and more than 3,000 sites. Priority is given to the best-known museums and sites, especially those listed by the United Nation’s Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) on its list of human heritage such as Palmyra, Busra and the castles of Aleppo, Salahuddin and Al-Hosn. The less important historical hills have less security, whereby one guard is given the responsibility of doing daily rounds to several hills separated by tens of kilometers; making it more difficult to guard them effectively. In this regard, Jamoos points to the “need of coordination and collaboration among various specialized parties to curb violations as soon as they take place.”
The mayor of Al-Baseerah, Dia’a Al-Mustafa, confirms that “violations at the ruins of Karkisia Hill have stopped” without denying that violations have taken place in the past. He proposes a solution through “eminent domain by the General Directorate of the antique hill and removal of buildings erected on top of the historical ruins after compensating its owners equitably.”
Jamoos, the General Director, does not support such a solution unless archeological finds of “significant importance” are found in the area. He confirmed that “Karkisia will stay the way it is unless important finds are excavated there.” But, he did not say how such discoveries can take place without an excavation team going to the site, considering the lack of funding. In Their Tens and Hundreds
In Their Tens and Hundreds
Dr. Ma’amoon Abdul-Karim, professor of antiquities at Damascus University who specialized in classic antiquities and trained at the French University of Versailles, confirms that Krakisia’s Hill is not the only site in Syria that has been subject to violations of antiquities that are abundant on unexcavated hills.
According to information about the Syrian Arab Republic found at the site of the Syrian People’s Council, more than 1,000 sites still await excavation in Syria.
Abdul-Karim estimates the number of sites lost due to natural causes and to the lack of rehabilitation and renovation schemes to be in the hundreds. He believes that a larger number of sites has been partly infringed upon. “There are hundreds of examples of the appearance of random villages surrounding historical sites,” he stated, pointing out that the infringement of housing on such sites leads to a violation of the sites and their destruction at times.
Looking for an Implementation Arm
The Director of Antique Buildings and Documentation, Ghazwan Yaghi, points to the need of creating an antiquities police force in Syria, as the case is in other countries. “The best solution found by legislation in many countries of the world,” Yaghi explained, “is the creation of a special police force that takes the role of the implementation authorities, reporting directly to the Directorate of Antiquities in order to suppress violations immediately.” He points out that except for its anti- violation units in the provinces; the Directorate in its currents state represents a guardianship authority without an implementing arm.
Yousuf Al-Hamad, the director of legal and administrative affairs at the Directorate of Antiquities, stated that the delay in increasing the number of guards and hence inability to apply the law is due to “the lack of state funding” even though the State Planning Commission had allocated 460 million Syrian pounds (about US$ 9.2 million) in 2007 as an annual budget for the Directorate.
After releasing a republican decree last August changing the administrative status of Al-Baseerah from town to city covering an area of 810 hectares, problems are applying pressures in different directions. It seems that the priority of its residents lies in building a hospital to provide health and medical services. That is more important to them than the need to excavate the ruins around their town; a matter considered a luxury for residents.
This investigation was supervised and funded by (ARIJ) Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism