Archaeological finds in Syria


Stone tomb from Byzantine era and jars unearthed in northwest in coastal province of Lattakia.

By Talal El-Atrache - DAMASCUS, July 10, 2006

Two of Syria's most famous sites from antiquity were in the country's news this week - one for the discovery of a Byzantine tomb and the other after the arrest of alleged looters trafficking in stolen artefacts.

The official news agency SANA on Tuesday reported the arrest of people suspected of looting from the ancient city of Palmyra, 220 kilometres (136 miles) northeast of Damascus, without saying how many people had been detained.

It also said a stone tomb from the Byzantine era and jars, one of which was thought to hold the bones of a baby, were found in the northwest in the coastal province of Lattakia.

The Mediterranean province is also the site of ancient Ugarit, where the world's first alphabet - inscribed on stone tablets nine thousand years ago - was discovered.

Lattakia province is a treasure trove of ancient sites, known for its Crusader castles and Phoenician, Hittite, Greek, Roman and Byzantine remains.

SANA said that in Palmyra, the authorities had arrested "traffickers of archaeological objects" who were found with "a stone bust of a priest and a stone portrait of a woman".

It quoted Palmyra director of antiquities Walid Assad as saying the bust shows the priest wearing a laurel wreath "attached by a jewel, itself sculpted in the form of a gentleman".

Assad described the 45 by 40 centimetre (18 by 16 inch) limestone bust as a funerary sculpture or a piece "produced in homage to an important person of rank of the time".

"The second object is a depiction in stone of a woman from Palmyra," he said.

"She is shown in traditional dress and adorned with necklaces and bracelets. The lady's right hand is held to her cheek, as if she is thinking about something."

The oasis of Palmyra, where still impressive ruins are a mere shadow of the desert city's former glory, was for many centuries a caravan stop on the silk road from China to the Mediterranean.

Sandwiched between opposing Roman and Persian empires, the Arab city was conquered by Rome in the second century BC and renamed Palmyra, or City of Palms.

The Byzantine tomb in Lattakia province was found during excavations near the village of Beit Sweihin, SANA said.

It was found at a depth of two metres, and nearby were two terracotta jars "one of which contains bones possibly belonging to an infant buried in the Canaanite manner", Latakia director of antiquities Jamal Haidar said.

"These discoveries may herald the find of a large cemetery in a region which was an important centre of the Canaanite civilisation," Haidar added.

Last week tombs, public baths, a mosaic and objects including urns and coins dating from the Roman era were found in Lattakia.

Syria's Roman heritage is widespread, but nowhere more so than at Palmyra.

The desert city expanded rapidly after being conquered by Rome, but its downfall was eventually brought about by a power-hungry woman.

In 267 AD, the city's Arab governor Odeinat was assassinated, and his beautiful and eloquent wife Zenobia assumed power.

Inspired by a desire for both liberty and glory, Zenobia took possession of all of Syria in 270, invaded Egypt, and sent her forces as far north as the Bosphorus.

She defied the Roman Emperor Aurelian in doing so, and enraged him further by dubbing her own son "Augustus" - a title reserved exclusively for the emperor.

Aurelian dispatched his legions to lay siege to Palmyra, and Zenobia was defeated and captured in 272.

She committed suicide, and the sumptuous city fell victim to pillage and destruction.

Today archaeologists continue to excavate in the hope of discovering Zenobia's palace, which was levelled by Aurelian and used to quarter his troops.

Palmyra's ruins - the theatre, its hot baths, the Temple of Baal, senate, triumphal arch, market and grand colonade - along with objects of gold, bronze and ceramics all attest to its glorious past.