Explainer: Archeology in Raqqa and Manbij

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In 2014, ISIS bulldozed ancient churches in Manbij. Only these mosaics survived the destruction. The jihadists defaced the mosaics and attempted to remove it in order to sell it.
Left-over statues in Manbij.

NES’ archeological sites are in a state of disrepair following a decade of war, as well as years of plundering and destruction by ISIS. Local archeologists decry the lack of professionals & funding to preserve & restore the region’s historical heritage. The cities of Manbij and Raqqa, in particular, are facing difficulties protecting their archeological sites.

The city of Manbij served as a depot & marketplace for looted antiquities during ISIS’ caliphate. Local archeologist Abdulwahhab Shekho says that around 200 archeological objects remain in the city – mainly statues, spanning the Roman, Persian, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods. Most objects lie strewn across a yard, uprooted from their historical context, and many decapitated or defaced by the jihadists. The city also houses antique mosaics from the Roman period (330 BC), preserved at the site of a series of early Christian-era churches, which were all bulldozed by ISIS in 2014. The sole surviving mosaics were systematically defaced by ISIS for supposedly violating Islamic principles. Many mosaics bear the scars of being cut out from their original locations in order to be sold to Turkey, on to the wider world – a principal source of funding for ISIS during their early expansion.

Kasr al-Benet in downtown Raqqa. Local archeologists have begun to restore it using traditional methods.

In Raqqa, Abdulghafur Khalaf, head of the local archeology department, says that of their 12,500 archeological pieces, 8,000 remain missing. Today, Raqqa’s archeology museum has no more than two dozen items on display. “Restauration professionals & funding is deeply needed,” Khalaf told us. They have the paperwork for over 6,500 objects, but there is no help from the international community to recuperate them. Even as major smuggling raids are conducted in Turkey and Europe, historical artifacts have yet to be returned to NES.

The Raqqa Civil Council has introduced a local renovation initiative to restore & renovate their sites, even as international help & funding are not forthcoming. At Herakla, next to an Abbasid-era castle 5km outside of Raqqa, the local archeology department is baking bricks following traditional practices. The bricks are carved out of mud found on the banks of nearby Euphrates and left to dry in the sun for a day, before being baked in hut-sized stone ovens for twelve consecutive hours. According to Khalaf, this small operation produces around 10,000 bricks per week. Local archeologists hope to be able to restore Raqqa’s historical sites, such as the Abbasid-era Kasr al-Benat, al-Mansur Mosque, the Bab al-Baghdad, and the city walls using this method.

The inside of a brick oven in Herakla, near Raqqa.

Experts both in Manbij & Raqqa say they need outside training in restoration, as most specialists left the country during the war. While some NGOs have visited them and implemented small-scale projects, they lack sufficient funding to adequately preserve & restore the sites. Plans for a museum in Manbij are underway, but thousands of antiques are still missing. Some, Mr. Khalaf says, have made appearances in Istanbul as part of private collections. To protect their historical heritage, Syria will need help from foreign governments to retrieve these objects.

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