Syrian Students Restore our Global Cultural Heritage, Tesserae by Tesserae

Franklin Lamb, a frequent contributor to TPQ, writing from the Damascus Citadel, Syria. This article is available on Al Manar.

Tesserae by Tesserae ... Syrian Students Restore Our Global Cultural Heritage

During mid-July, 2013, the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) of the Ministry of Culture in Damascus received an urgent message from citizens of Berhalia, a village about 30 kilometers West of Damascus. Berhalia is located in an area that has seen much fighting and from which the central government has lacked easy access and no control. The simple message was that it might be possible to recover a severely damaged Syria archaeological treasure from rebels who took possession of it.

The piles of thousands of small colored Byzantium tiles called tesserae, according to someone involved in the case, were initially impossible to identify because the archaeological context had been substantially demolished as had the building which housed the antiquity. The mosaic chips were discovered to depict elaborate scenes from deep in Syrian history and once finally able to be measured it was determined that the mosaic had been approximately 60 square meters in size. The antiquity is decorated with geometrical ornaments and consists of two rectangular panels, one being an orthogonal pattern of perpendicular intersecting tangent four- pointed star, forming lozenges alternately recumbent and upright. The second, which was only partially conserved, is decorated with a large star of two interlaced squares inscribed in a circle. The heaps of terrerae predated the second half of the 4th century, according to D. Komait Abdallah, Director of DGAM’s scientific laboratories located in the Damascus Citadel. The massive Citadel was first fortified in 1076 by the Turkman warlord Atsiz bin Uvak and is part of the Old City of Damascus, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Eventually, a local citizen of Berhalia, who had apparently been a former rebel sympathizer of some sort and who had been a student of an archaeologist at Damascus University, took an interest in the mosaic which was not far from his home, which his family had fled months earlier. Contact was then made with Syrian army units in the area and a meeting took place between a delegation of local citizens and some of the rebel militiamen, who some of them had known before the crisis erupted. It was the latter who had possession of the small pieces of the at least fifteen century old irreplaceable Mosaic. The citizens, like so many Syrians this observer has met feel deeply connected with Patrimoine Syrien. They pled their case to fighters on both sides of the current conflict. They beseeched them to put their beloved Syria first and urged that their country’s cultural heritage be spared the ravages of war and that the destruction of archaeological sites stop. An eyewitness reported that the hardened fighters appeared somehow moved the unusual spectacle. Soon a delegation of specialists in Mosaic and artefacts preservation left Damascus for Berhalia village to investigate.

Some locals hint that an envelope may have changed hands containing approximately one million Syrian pounds ($ 1,200 USD). But not wanting to encourage even more entrepreneurs getting rich quick by selling Syria’s history, no one is admitting a role in buying or selling Syria’s history-even on such a small scale. Others take more of an attitude of “who really cares much, one way or another, given the continuing maelstrom here, as long as a part of Syrian cultural heritage remains under its citizen’s protective care?” This expressed attitude has been heard a few times by this observer from the Syrian public who desperately want an end the violence and the soonest possible return to normal life. Almost immediately, more than one thousand pounds of ¾ inch by ¾ inch Mosiac chips (tesserae) were brought by a military-style vehicle to Damascus for safe keeping.

It was around this time that the Director of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, and some colleagues made it their personal mission not just to preserve but also to restore the ancient irreplaceable antiquity. The tesserae were then moved to the antiquities restoration laboratory in the midlevel fortified palace known as the Ancient Citadel of Damascus.

The mosaic of Berhalia is one of several of the rare mosaics discovered in the Damascus region and is today being restored by a team of 15 students under the tutelage of Syrian Directorate of Archaeological Scientific and Reconstructive Laboratories, and specifically, Instructors Mouhamed Kayd and Borhan Al Zarra. When their work is completed the restored mosaic will be exhibited in the Damascus citadel, first fortified in 1076 by the Turkman warlord Atsiz bin Uvak and which is part of the Ancient City of Damascus, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

In the course of visiting damaged archaeological sites in Syria, this observer spent time with this remarkable and skilled team of artefact restoration students.

As four of the students took a break from their work one day, and offered their guest tea and a local pastry, I felt comfortable posing a few questions that they quite spontaneously answered. Fortunately, I had the needed assistance of a brilliant Damascus University student of Arabic and English Translation and Interpretation, named Nuhad. She is from a village near Homs but spends her time these days in Damascus due to many security problems in her area. Below are excerpts from our conversation with names changed at the student’s request.

Q: How does it make you feel, as you go about this work you are doing, knowing there are people in Syria committing atrocities of the sort seen in some of the videos that have been uploaded to You Tube? Are you afraid? Do you worry about getting kidnapped?

  • Hanan, a twenties something student of pharmacology from Latakia who since last winter has volunteered to work on restoring or repairing whatever she was judged competent to do, answered first.

A: Like most of the world, and I believe like just about everyone in Syria, certainly among my friends and fellow students, we are horrified by what is happening. Especially by groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al Nursa, in eastern Syria. This has never happened in our country and it certainly is not and never has been any part of our secular culture. But what can we do about it? Our army is making big sacrifices to stop it so we can return to a normal life. Yes, I am afraid and so are most of our friends. We take care and we go to classes and return to our homes before dark. Our restoration work is done in the center of Damascus which so far has been mainly safe although last year 17 students were killed or wounded by a rebel mortar at Damascus University School of Architecture. We usually stay home at night but here in Damascus security is better than in the villages and countryside so if it has been quiet for a few days we might go to a cafe and meet with friends. It is true that there are many kidnappings but usually those held for payment or ransom are known to be from rich families or an important political personality. I am not part of these groups. Unfortunately, like more than half of the Syrian people who used to work, my father and uncles have no job.

Q: How does it make you feel knowing that the US has begun arming Syrian rebels with anti-tank weapons and other heavy weaponry? Does that increase your level of fear?

  • Abed, who is studying engineering at Baath University in Homs offered his view.

A: Its very scary because when will this end? Most of my friends believe that outsiders are keeping the war going because they believe that they can win it. Does the USA really know or understand who they are arming and what the fighters will do after you give them training? Do you think these jihadists love you because you helped them against a nationalist Arab regime which rejects the Zionist occupation of Palestine? We worry about when will it end. Who can stop it if other countries keep feeding the killing? You know very well what has happened to us. More than one half of our families have been displaced. How can we ever rebuild our country that we love? When will the war end? What will be left? Sure we are scared. My mother is sick from worrying. She cries every day. We have no idea what became of many of our relatives across Syria. And what about DAASH? They control Raqqa Governorate and now parts of Iraq and they plan to create a proto caliphate of some kind with part of Syria included. We have relatives in Raqqa. Will Syria become like Iraq or Somalia? Or worse? This is what me and all my friends worry about and we feel powerless to stop or even influence what is happening out there. Like all Syrians we are exhausted from these years of war. We are so tired and just want it all to end. Are we mistaken? What do you think?

Q: The media speculates a lot these days about ISIS or DAASH type groups because they appear to be the most extreme off-shoot of Al Qeada and are killing Shia Muslims and Christians more or less where they find them. How do you and your friends view DAASH?

  • Zeina, whose family in Yarmouk camp lost their home and business to jihadist militia in 2012, is a Palestinien business student at Yarmouk Private University. She offered her view of militia groups that have invaded her country :

A: Ok, this is what happened. Most of these groups we never heard of but a few years ago there were a few reports about extremist jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. We just assumed they were crazy or joking. I never dreamed they could get support and operate here because Syria is and has historically been very secular, and we have always respected others political opinion, ethnic backgrounds and religions. We have never experienced this kind of hatred. It is true that in Syria we share festivities with all religions and traditions and we like to do so because we learn from them and we all enjoy other people’s backgrounds and culture. We are not religious fanatics in Syria and never have been. Hopefully we never will be. This is natural and normal isn’t it to share our neighbours’ traditions? You do it in your country I am sure. I know you do because we have family in America and also in Europe.

So we in Syria were as surprised as anyone when DAASH came here and started imposing crazy rules on us—especially on women. Women are being treated like slaves. What is wrong with these gangs? They are not Muslims at all in my opinion. They are perverted in my opinion. I am religious. I am Muslim. I am Sunni like they claim to be and I have studied the Holy Koran all my life. I try to follow its teachings but I have never found the kind of nonsense they claim to be true Islam. Have they ever studied the Koran? For sure some Sheiks incite them.

Q: With all that is happening outside of Syria’s Ancient Citadel located here in the Old City of Damascus how do you feel about being here and doing this work nearly every day?

  • Jilan, who is studying English Literature at Damascus University quickly answered:

A: Oh my God ! Are you a psychiatrist? (laughing). I need one for sure and I sometimes wonder myself. My mother asked me this same question not long ago. Some of the many reasons you might find strange but please allow me to give you a couple.

With Allah as my witness, I feel secure somehow being deep inside these ancient walls and I wish my family was here with me. I worry about them all the time. I feel safe here also because many people have told me that these walls can withstand mortars, which is what we usually receive randomly from rebels based in East Gouta and areas south of Damascus. Even artillery shells or many bombs cannot reach us. As you see it is so quiet and peaceful in here. You hear no shelling or rockets or jet planes in the sky.

Another thing I like about working on restoring antiquities is that it’s as though I am honouring those who came before me in our history and culture. I like to think about what their lives must have been like compared to ours. I feel that I am doing something useful during this terrible time and that i am showing confidence in my beloved country that we will somehow get through this and eventually rebuild what has been damaged. What we are doing here in our simple restoration laboratory. Plus I love the friends I have made here. As we work we have plenty of time to talk and get to know one another. Finally, we sometimes, but not very often these days, meet foreigners who come to see our work and express support for what we are doing here. Thank you for visiting us. I wish American and other international students could come and join us. They would like this work I am sure.

  • Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (

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