Evidence of historic sites at risk as uprising forces out archaeologists

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Anti-government protests gripping Syria have forced archaeologists to abandon excavation work on ancient ruins on the banks of the Euphrates, with the little-explored sites now at risk of being lost forever when a planned dam floods the area.

Construction on the Halabiyeh hydropower dam begins next year, despite opposition from cultural and environmental experts, leaving a narrow window before many Bronze Age, Roman and Byzantine sites disappear beneath the waters.

Archaeologists working on the Byzantine-era fortress of Zalabiyeh said they were on the cusp of finding out why the citadel was abandoned in the eighth century, but as the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad gathers pace and the regime unleashes its forces to crush it, the experts have been forced to pull out.

Dr Emma Loosley, an archaeologist and art historian with the University of Manchester, was invited by Syria's Department of Antiquities to work on the site. She said Zalabiyeh overlooked the narrowest point in the Euphrates and was on a vital trading route.

"It contains evidence of continuous human settlement through many civilisations including the Assyrian, Roman, Arab – it is an astonishing area to work in and one of the most important in the world," she said. "So our work to understand as much as we can before it disappears is hugely important and I hope to be able to go back as soon as it is safe to do so."

She said that the fortress – occupied for only a few hundred years – provided a perfect "time capsule" of day-to-day life at the end of the Byzantine era and during early Muslim expansion across what is now the Arab world. Spanish archaeologists were working further upstream on a Bronze Age site and French teams were also working in the area.