Syria upheaval halts race to reveal secrets of ancient fort

Archaeologists despair of completing excavation work on site before it is flooded by new dam

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 say they were on the cusp of finding out why the citadel was abandoned in the 8th 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 told The Independent 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 had been trying to find ways to protect the larger settlement of Halabiyeh on the opposite bank, a complex of 3rd-century ruins already starting to attract tourists. A report in 2008 for Unesco, the UN cultural body, warned that the dam would cause water levels to rise by 14 metres (46ft), submerging a third of the site.

Dr Loosley's team had determined that a fire swept through Zalabiyeh. They were due to start examining whether it was caused by accident or attack when they were told by the Syrians to cancel this year's trip, as protests that began in March spread inland. Up to 50 people were reported killed in August in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, the gateway to the archaeological sites. During similar pro-democracy uprisings in Libya and Egypt, museums were looted and historical sites, and Syria's official news agency has already reported pillaging in the ancient city of Apamea in the west.

Dr Loosley worries for the safety of artefacts uncovered by last year's dig, and stored at the Deir al-Zour museum. New sanctions against Syria have also prevented her paying the man guarding the site. The Syrian Embassy in London said only that all sites were "well protected by Syrian authorities", but would not comment on whether work on the dam was going ahead.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living