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Syrian institutions in the fields of archaeology and heritage – University of Copenhagen

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Brief presentation of Syrian institutions in the fields of archaeology and heritage

The richness and diversity of the civilizations which have converged on Syria make it a hotspot for archaeological and historical research, which is reflected in the number of archaeological missions in the country. From the 1980s to the late 1990s there were 80-100 Syrian missions working with local staff, and 140 foreign and collaborative missions composed of foreign and Syrian researchers or students.  By comparison, in the years following the establishment of the Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) in 1950, there were not more than 30 archaeological missions working in the country. This significant development of the number of research programs was accompanied by the wider adoption of scientific methods, and researchers started to use new techniques such as remote sensing or laboratory analysis.

The highest Syrian institution authorized to oversee the country’s heritage and archeology is the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums, (DGAM). This institution was established shortly after Syria's independence in 1946 and was under the central supervision of the Ministry of Culture. This brief presentation will trace the development of this institution following the main events and figures.

Before independence

The origins and development of archaeological research in the Near East as a whole can be traced back to the European Renaissance, from the 14th to 17th century AD. During this era, research into religious roots was dominated by attempts to identify places relating to both Judaism and Christianity and mentioned in the New and Old Testaments. This clear biblical background and the openness of the Ottoman authorities to allow pilgrims and missionaries to operate in the area were the two most important influences on the first steps of research in the Near East. With religious research in mind, scientific missions started such as the ‘Arabian journey’ conducted by the Danish scholar F. C. Niebuhr in the mid-18th century and followed by the Swiss traveler J. L. Burckhardt in the early 19th century.

The first archaeologists appeared in the mid-19th century, with the majority of them having religious or political functions. The most important of these early pioneers include the Frenchman P.E. Botta and the Englishman A.H. Layard who conducted excavations in different parts of Mesopotamia, in modern-day Iraq. Many of the discoveries from key Assyrian sites such as Nineveh and Nimrud were exported to the major museums in Europe, such as the British Museum and the Louvre. The first western involvement in the history and archaeology of Syria also started around this time, with excavations conducted by Frenchman J. E. Renan on the Syrian coast and his compatriot M. de Vogué in central Syria, while the American H. Buttler and the Englishman R. Wood started excavations in Northern Syria and Palmyra respectively. These excavations, under Ottoman rule, paved the way for further archaeological work, including excavations led by the German M. Von Oppenheim at the site of Tell Halaf, the British team of D. G. Hogarth and L. Woolley at the site of Karkemish on the Syrian Turkish border and a German team led by T. Weigand started working at the site of Palmyra.

Under the French mandate (1920-1946), archaeological research became more active and was linked in a methodological way to serve the purposes of cultural polices of French colonization, as certain features of colonial archaeology started to make themselves felt at that time. During this period the French Institute for research was established and the magazine Syria launched, as well as other scientific events and exhibitions including the first global conference about Syrian archaeology held by the French in 1926, and an exhibition about Syria in the Louvre in 1923. The French mandate also created a General Directorate for Antiquities, at the time a joint institution for Syria and Lebanon. The General Directorate for Antiquities was first managed by J. Chamonard and then, from 1920, by J. Ch. Virolleaud. These steps were taken at the same time as instigating new laws and regulations for archaeology, updating Ottoman legislation.

Consequently, a series of survey and excavation work was organized at the sites of Palmyra, Aleppo and Apamea. In 1929 H. Seyrig was in charge of the directorate of Syrio-Lebanese archaeology and instigated a new type of research program called the ‘permanent missions’. These operated at the sites of Ugarit in 1929 (modern Ras- Shamra), Mari in1933 (modern Tell Hariri) on the Euphrates, and sites such as Arslan Tash (modern Hadato) and Tell Hmar, Qatna (Tell el-Mishrife) which were excavated extensively over long seasons. The discoveries from these sites confirmed the unique place of Syrian civilization and its rich history, and shortly afterwards the French mandatory authorities authorized non-French missions to operate in Syria. The Danish excavation of H. Ingholt subsequently started in Hama (1931-1938), as well as a Belgian mission operated in Apamea, a British mission operated in the Jezireh and an American mission operated in the Amuq valley.

In 1936 the National Museum of Damascus was opened with a special focus on the classical period, while pre-classical items were placed at the Museum of Aleppo. French authorities also issued a decree allowing discoveries to be shared between the various missions and, as a result of the growing archeological work, an independent directorate exclusively for Syrian archeology was set up, first run by H. Seyrig and later M. Dunand in 1941. After the Syrian uprising against the French authorities, M. Dunand quit his job in 1945, and for a year-long transitional period between 1945 and 1946 the directorate of archaeology was run by the American F. Brown, head of the mission at Dura Europos. He was succeeded by Emir ǧaʿfar al Ḥusainī the first Syrian director of antiquities after independence.      

After independence

Emir ǧaʿfar was not able to implement real changes in the infrastructure for historical and archaeological research, so the majority of archaeological work was still carried out by foreign institutions, with a clear French domination. However he initiated some steps such as the construction of the current National Museum, the reconstruction of the synagogue of Dura –Europos and the Palmyra tombs, the removing of the façade of the qaṣr al ḥīr alġarbī  for display in the museum, as well as some excavation works. The next significant step was the appointment of Salīm ʿAdel ʿAbudul ḥaq as the General Director in 1950, which was accompanied by significant changes such as the enhancement of the National Museum to include a new Islamic section, as well as the inauguration of several traditional folk museums in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Palmyra. Under his leadership, the first national Syrian excavation and restoration missions started work at various sites, including Palmyra, Bosra, Apamea, Saint Simon and Krak des Chevaliers. At the same time the journal Les Annales Archéologique Arabes Syriennes (AAAS) first appeared as well as a new law for archaeology and the implementation of links to the international organization UNESCO.  

In the 1970s and 80s excavation continued at the most threatened sites, especially those affected by the construction of several dams on the Euphrates and Khabour River in the 1970s. The discoveries which came from sites such as Abu Hureyra and Mureybet on the Euphrates Valley were exceptional and produced material for some of the earliest human evidence for economic management, religion and state-building. In 1964, the discovery of the sites of Ebla was a real turning point for Syria as it proved to be contemporary with the famous Mesopotamian cultural centers located at Babylon and Nineveh; just like the significant site Mari.    

In the period from 1968 to 1976 the way archaeology was conducted in Syria changed considerably with the instigation of large, ambitious archeological projects carried out to save sites threatened by the construction of the Euphrates dam. These projects yielded wonderful discoveries from sites such as Emar (modern Meskeneh), Habuba Kabira, Boqrus, Mureybet, Abu Hureyra and others, which were displayed in global exhibitions, and attracted international study and conferences.

Another major step was the inclusion of Syrian sites in the UNESCO World Heritage List, including Aleppo citadel (1986), the citadel of Damascus (1979), Palmyra and Bosra (1980), which became much better known and received large numbers of tourists as well as researchers.

Between 1993 and 2000 the directorate initiated what has been seen as a ‘golden age’ for Syrian archeology. Under the directorate of Sultan Muhesen, a wide ranging program of excavation and restoration for the threatened sites was initiated, in particular at the Crusader Castles of Krak des Chevaliers and Damascus. The numerous discoveries included a Neolithic village in the Euphrates Valley as well as the oldest human remains in the Afrin Valley and intense survey and documentation work, which took place in Northern Syria. The construction of a new Hama museum, and in particular its laboratory built thanks to the support of Danish scholars, also represents a shift towards modern methodology. In 1999 more than 11 archaeological and historical sites were admitted to the UNESCO world heritage tentative list, raising the number of Syrian sites recognized by UNESCO to 17. In 2011, the sites of Mari and Dura-Europos of Euphrates Valley were added to the tentative list, which increased to 18 the total number of UNESCO recognized heritage sites in the country. Moreover, a national research center in Damascus was also opened, and there was an increase in the number of conferences, workshops and scientific journals dedicated to Syrian archaeology and heritage, for both the international and Arab community. 


In the 8th millennium BC, Syria was the place where the so-called Neolithic revolution started, which led to deep socio-political and economic change. With the building of settlements, temples and palaces, beliefs became crystallized, and a social hierarchy emerged. During the 4th millennium BC, Syria experienced an urban revolution with the construction of distinctive walled cities. For three thousand years, Syria was inhabited by the Acadians, Amorites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Arameans and Canaanites, who each constructed significant cities, with palaces, temples and defensive forts and developed an extremely rich material culture as well as the extraordinary alphabet of Ugarit. Over its long classical history covering the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras, Syria proved to be a crossroads for culture from the west and east, while the arrival of Islam witnessed an explosion of creativity and learning in all aspects of life. Evidence for intense and continuous human occupation has been found at several sites starting with prehistoric tools and farming communities, followed by kingdoms or Classic and Islamic centers. Most of these sites are in the Euphrates Valley or on the coast.

Syrian heritage therefore is an integral part of worldwide heritage, and when Syrian academics and authorities protect and promote it they do so on the assumption that this heritage is not owned by the Syrians only, but by all humankind. These sites are repositories of global knowledge, and any damage or loss is a loss to the history of humankind and our collective memory.

In terms of the Syrian conflict, heritage will play an important role in the recovery phase, since it represents the common background on which all the Syrian factions will converge during any process of reconciliation. Another key aspect is tourism revenue which will be vital to Syria’s economic revival.

Despite the great variety in and the richness of Syria’s cultural heritage, the national institutions in charge of the substantial task of preserving, documenting and displaying the different sites and monuments are experiencing considerable difficulties with doing just that. The DGAM and other heritage institutions in Syria are obstructed by lack of resources and qualified local staff. In spite of these difficulties, the different DGAM conservation and restoration teams, mainly composed of students together with experts, are considered to be professionals within their field, thanks to the exchange programs and training courses between the different Syrian institutions and universities conducted in the period before the outbreak of the conflict.

Experts and NGO’s working in the field of cultural and archaeological heritage argue that the first challenge that the DGAM alongside with other Syrian institutions will have to face is the carrying out of a wide scale restoration and conservation program for the damaged sites and monuments across the country. This post-war phase of activities will require the international research communities to assist the local academics and cultural institutions in setting up an efficient policy of rehabilitation of the cultural heritage sites as well as developing new means of protection and preservation of these affected sites.