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.

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