Al-Raqqa’s monuments: A historical heritage neglected by authorities and infringed upon by people 

A car dumpster in front of the ancient al-Raqqa's Wall, which was bombed by the International Coalition Forces (ICF) in 2017 - November 2020 (Enab Baladi / Hussam al-Omar)

A car dumpster in front of the ancient al-Raqqa's Wall, which was bombed by the International Coalition Forces (ICF) in 2017 - November 2020 (Enab Baladi / Hussam al-Omar)

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Al-Raqqa – Hussam al-Omar

At the ancient Wall of al-Raqqa city lies stones scattered near the rubble of abandoned vehicles after three years of bombardment. Between the walls of the Castle of Ladies, garbage was dumped carelessly on the ground, while the displaced people set up their tents on the archeological site of Tall al-Baya’a.  

In the eastern city of al-Raqqa, fed by the Euphrates River since antiquity, successive civilizations have existed since the Bronze Age of more than 5,000 years. These civilizations left their monuments on every corner of the land and their Muslim urban arts flourished during the early decades of the Abbasid caliphate era.  

The Byzantines and Romans occupied al-Raqqa before it became known for its Islamic architecture. Each civilization that inhabited the area kept its predecessor’s legacy without destroying or distorting it until the so-called Islamic State (IS) controlled the city and turned it into the capital of the caliphate once again.  

Through pillaging, looting, deliberate or accidental destruction, archaeological sites in al-Raqqa have become another victim of war, and the conflict parties’ attacks. Even in times of relative calmness, the city’s monuments did not experience peace or tranquility, and their restoration was halted in wait for efforts that have not borne fruit yet.  

Ahmed contemplates the destroyed ancient wall and tells Enab Baladi that the bombing and airstrikes of the battles between the US-led International Coalition Forces (ICF) and the IS, were the greatest cause of this destruction.  

“Salvaging and preserving the monuments are everyone’s duties; however, the reality is not that simple,” the thirty-something man told Enab Baladi 

The Culture and Antiquities Committee of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) operating in northeastern Syria has assessed the damage of the archaeological sites. Despite identifying the sites that need rehabilitation and care, “the lack of financial resources has prevented this mission,” one of the committee’s members told Enab Baladi on the condition of anonymity.   

The restoration of the ancient wall, Baghdad Gate, and the Ja’bar Castle in the al-Raqqa city was reduced to simple repairs, as the employees were unable to secure what is necessary to restore them under the limited resources.  

The residents of al-Raqqa also caused damage to the city’s historical landmarks unconsciously and without appreciating their value. They caused accidental or sometimes deliberate destruction, distortion, and desecration, such as the case with the Castle of the Ladies, that part of which was turned into a dumpster, while other parts were demolished.  

As for the ancient Tall al-Baya’a, northeast of the city, its condition is similar to that of Ladies Castle, as it was also turned into a landfill. Nevertheless, the archeological site of Tall al-Baya’a was used by displaced people as a campsite. They set up their tents on its land and secretly started illegal excavation works and were digging for antiquities to sell them on the black market and smuggle them out of al-Raqqa city.  

The member of the Culture and Antiquities Committee also pointed out the danger that archeological sites face due to the ignorance of residents and displaced people who transformed the site into a housing center and acted in ways that do not fit the city’s historical status. 

On 7 November, the RehabiMed Association announced its launch of the “Documentation and Protection of Cultural Heritage of al-Raqqa City” project more than a month ago. The project proposes forming a team of local experts to assess the state of the monuments, the extent of the destruction, set restoration priorities, and educate people about the importance of archaeological sites.  

The project includes the Spanish National Research Council’s (CSIC) participation, the Heritage for Peace organization, and the local authority in northeast Syria. The project was funded by the British Council’s Heritage Protection Fund.  

 Stolen and destroyed antiquities   

The al-Raqqa monuments date back to the city’s early establishment by Seleucus I, the Greek general of Alexander the Macedonian, who founded the Seleucid Empire in 242 B.C. However, the city’s monuments that remain to date go back to the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid in the eighth century.  

In an interview with the Ronahi news website last August, the al-Raqqa’s archaeological museum director Mohammed Azza estimated the number of historical sites to be around 500 between hills and apparent or dust-covered monuments. These sites have witnessed an increasing pillaging since 2011, according to a report issued in October 2014 by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). The report stated that the looting was at its most as the IS began to tighten its control of the area.  

Al-Raqqa was one of the first cities to announce liberation from the Syrian regime’s grip in 2013. Different parties controlled the city, starting with the opposition factions that lost control to the IS forces one year later.   

The IS announcement of the al-Raqqa city as the capital of the caliphate made it the main target of the ICF’s air raids and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) attacks, which took control of the city after three years and caused massive destruction. 

After the SDF took control of al-Raqqa in 2017 and the al-Raqqa civil council’s establishment, its institutions did not give sufficient importance to the monuments’ restoration, despite forming the Culture and Antiquities Committee. The committee focused on heritage celebrations and folklore activities and neglected the rehabilitation of archaeological sites. Nevertheless, there were two stages of restoration for the al-Raqqa Museum, sponsored by the “New Step” organization operating in al-Raqqa.  

In September 2017, the regime’s government’s General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums estimated the damage to the governorate’s 15 archaeological sites, out of 710 ones throughout Syria.  

The al-Raqqa Museum, which served as an Ottoman governmental building (Saraya) and has preserved classical monuments and other artifacts related to the ancient East, the Bronze Age, and the Islamic period, was robbed of nine boxes, and an explosion destroyed its doors and windows.  

The ancient al-Mansour Mosque built under the caliph Abu Jafar al-Mansour in the 8th century and listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on the nominated list of World Heritage Sites with the Abbasid City’s remains in June 1999, was subjected to excavations with heavy machinery. Moreover, the IS forces invaded the Ja’bar Castle and the Hiraqla site and stole hundreds of antiquities from them.    

The hills of al-Raqqa, which included the remains of entire ancient cities, were also not spared from illegal excavations and pillaging, including the Tall al-Baya’a that includes the remains of the ancient city of Tutul mentioned in the cuneiform tablets that date back to the early Bronze Age of the third millennium B.C.  

In addition, the destruction affected Tall Hamam al-Turkman, Tall al-Sheikh Hassan, and Tall Shahin, which date back to the Byzantine period. It also affected the Tall Sabi Abyad and the al-Mafish Tall, whose artifacts date back to the end of the 6th millennium and the early 5th millennium BC in the modern Stone age. The Eastern and Western Damer hills were also damaged and vandalized.  

UNESCO mentioned on its site that is dedicated to preserving Syria’s heritage that Syria’s urban and architectural heritage suffered “extensive” and extraordinary damage due to the use of its sites for military purposes. Syria’s archeological sites were deliberately targeted by bombings, explosions, illegal excavation, systematic destruction, unregulated construction, and temporary housing. On the other hand, the locals of the region contributed in some cases to playing an important role in protecting their area’s heritage. 

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