Between promises of restoration and insufficient oversight, Daraa monuments buried in rubble

The destruction of Muzayrib castle in Daraa's western countryside - November 2020 (Enab Baladi - Halim Muhammad)

The destruction of Muzayrib castle in Daraa's western countryside - November 2020 (Enab Baladi - Halim Muhammad)

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Daraa – Halim Muhammad

In Busra al-Sham, eastern Daraa countryside, Mohammed has watched the fighter aircraft drop its explosive bombs load. He was neither afraid nor worried upon hearing the aircraft’s thundering sound; instead, he was sad thinking about the fate of the archeological site of the Bed of the King’s Daughter (Sarir Bint al-Malik), which was targeted by the aircraft.

The damage to the historical monument caused by direct bombing and targeting, 20 centuries after its building, was not the only loss of the southern governorate of Daraa. During the targeting and siege years, from 2011 to 2018, when the Syrian regime regained its control over Daraa, the governorate experienced massive damage to its ruins.

After the regime regained control over Daraa, chaos prevailed in the governorate due to conflicting security forces, influenced by Iran and Russia. The ruins of Daraa were left unsupervised or without protection, pending the implementation of restoration promises.

World Heritage sites bombarded and looted in Daraa

In the capital of the Roman province of Arabia (Busra), architectural monuments and treasures spread in every corner. These ruins date back to at least 2,500 years ago, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The monuments have been classified as one of the World Heritage sites since 1980. They include architectural, historical, and religious sites, such as ancient churches and mosques, that were subjected to random shelling, excavation, and use of explosives in the search for and plunder of archaeological vestiges.

Mohammed al-Mikdad, a resident of Busra al-Sham city, told Enab Baladi, “the Syrian regime’s forces have “intentionally” bombed the monuments. The regime’s air force and artillery forces targeted Busra Castle, Mabrak al-Naqa Mosque, Wall of Busra Castle, the Bed of the King’s Daughter site, al-Omari Mosque, and others. In 2018, The regime targeted the western tower of the castle with barrel bombs, causing one of the towers to fall.”

The armed factions are also responsible for the destruction of monuments, despite their previous statements pledging to protect archaeological sites. The shrine of Prophet Ayyub in the al-Sheikh Saad town in the western Daraa countryside turned into dust after the Islamic Muthanna Movement, which declared its support to the so-called Islamic State (IS), bombed it. The movement considered the shrine a heresy that should not be built in the first place, according to Islamic sharia law.

Abu Ammar, another resident of Busra al-Sham, said in reference to the shrine, which turned into rubble and lost all its features, “the symbolism of the shrine topped belief-based disagreements. the people of Daraa take pride in the fact that God’s prophets lived in their areas, as the land of Hauran has a great history, that was unfortunately overshadowed by religious intolerance and destroyed by war.”

Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, considered the protection of archeological and cultural sites as essential for the restoration of peace in Syria when she condemned the bombing of World Heritage sites in the southern governorate in December 2015. She said the Roman theater of Busra “embodies the rich diversity of the Syrian people’s identity and asked antique collectors to fight the theft of Syrian monuments that spread around the world without control or accountability.

Illegal excavation in search of archaeological vestiges

The seventy-something-year-old Abu Mahmoud talked to Enab Baladi with sadness while he stood in front of piles of stones that once belonged to the ancient castle of Muzayrib in the western countryside of Daraa. He explained the castle’s Ottoman history and its importance as a respite for the pilgrims.

The castle of Muzayrib has a strategic location overlooking the lake of Muzayrib and is surrounded by cinchona trees, which gave the site tourist importance of great benefit to people, as a result of the revenues of the tourists’ visits.

Nevertheless, the castle’s importance to local residents has not prevented those seeking rapid profit from illegal and random excavation works to find archeological treasures. Umm Ahmed, a resident of Muzayrib town, said that diggers of artifacts destroyed the castle by removing its stones and demolishing some of its walls.

Even the archeological hills that are mostly located in Daraa’s western countryside have been subjected to indiscriminate excavations. Hills such as al-Ashari, Ashtara, al-Suman, Umm Hauran, Hamad, and al-Jumoua al-Jabiyeh were damaged and distorted by the battels between opposition factions, the regime’s forces, and the IS in the region.

According to Abu Mahmoud, excavation works take place in broad daylight, as people carrying digging tools come to the area and work in front of the residents.

“Ten-meter-long trenches have been dug in the Ashtara and al-Suman hills using excavators and explosive devices to save digging effort, regardless of the destruction caused by the bombing,” Yousef, a man in his thirties from the western Daraa countryside told Enab Baladi.

Despite the strictness of the Syrian law in dealing with excavation and archeological trafficking charges with punishment ranging from 15 to 25 years of imprisonment with a fine of up to 500 thousand Syrian pounds (SYP = 181.488 USD), it did not deter those searching for archeological relics. The weak security grip in Daraa and the lack of regime forces’ control over the area have also contributed to the problem of illegal digging for artifacts. Even the opposition factions were indifferent to the importance of protecting monuments and punishing the aggressors on their sites.

Timid official steps for monuments restoration vs. effective popular efforts

After the Syrian regime took control of Daraa in July 2018, the General Directorate of Antiquities did not undertake serious restoration work for archaeological sites and supervised the partial renovation of cultural archeology. The directorate’s restoration included specific sites in Inkhil city in the northern Daraa countryside and al-Mataaiya town in the eastern Daraa countryside.

Last July, the official Syrian news agency SANA cited a statement by the head of Daraa Antiquities Directorate, Mohammed Khair Nasrallah, saying that restoration works are underway in the southeastern countryside of Daraa, with a cost value of 35 million (SYP = 12,704 USD).

However, the residents denied the government’s statements. For example, Umm Mohammed described the antiquities directorate’s work as “slow” and limited to staking stones in the northern and western parts of Muzayrib castle.

In October 2019, Daraa Antiquities Directorate announced that renovation works in the castle of Muzayrib would be concluded in eight months; nevertheless, the current rubble in the castle site does not indicate that the restoration could be completed soon.

For their part, Daraa al-Balad residents did not wait for the government’s efforts to restore monuments in their areas. They formed a local committee of Daraa clans and launched a civil donation campaign to restore the al-Omari Mosque, which is considered one of the most important archeological and religious places in the governorate.

Within the absence of the Daraa Wakf (religious endowments) Directorate and the Directorate General of Antiquities in the governorate, the civil committee completed two phases of four to completely restore the mosque, according to one of its members. The civil committee member told Enab Baladi on the condition of anonymity that restoration operations started six months ago without any financial or technical interference from government bodies.

The committee member added that Daraa’s residents consider the al-Omari Mosque as one of the Syrian revolution symbols. They did not wait for the regime government’s restoration, which destroyed its minaret in 2013 and fired shots at the demonstrators who came out of it in 2011. Instead, the civil committee recently ended the restoration of the mosque’s internal and western parts while completing its rehabilitation works.

 

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