Ma’arra Mosaic Museum, Northern Syria, Idlib Province, monument, ancient heritage, barrel bombs, Syrian army

Ma’arra Mosaic Museum in Northern Syria’s Idlib Province was largely destroyed by Syrian army barrel bombs. Fortunately archeologists have risked their lives to try to protect this ancient heritage 

The race to protect Syria’s heritage from the ravages of war and plunder has brought a new kind of warrior to the front lines.

These cultural rebels are armed with cameras and sandbags. They work in secret, sometimes in disguise, to outwit smugglers. They risk their lives to take on enemies that include the Syrian regime, Islamist militants and professional smugglers who loot for pay, sometimes using bulldozers.

Their backers, from prominent cultural institutions in the West, refer to them as the “Monuments Men” of Syria, based on the name given those who saved cultural heritage in Europe during World War II.

Academics On The Front Lines

Abdul Rahman al-Yehiya and Ayman al-Nabu seem unlikely warriors. They are academics in suits. We meet them in a hotel in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, after they made a grueling, 10-hour journey across Syria’s dangerous frontier, including the last 5 miles on foot.

“We are a team of specialists in archaeology, engineering and artists,” says Yehiya. He led the team in an emergency preservation of the Ma’arra museum in northern Syria’s Idlib province, famous for a dazzling, world-class collection of Roman and Byzantine mosaics from the 3rd to 6th centuries A.D.

The eight-month project began last summer with an intense workshop on preservation techniques. Then the dangerous work began on the front lines of the war.

The team assessed the damage from Syrian air force strikes in an area contested by the regime and the rebels. They worked to fix what was damaged and protect the remaining mosaics.

“The mortars, the warplanes and the helicopters that drop barrel bombs” were only part of the risk, says Yehiya. “There was the danger of the snipers,” he says: regime soldiers who targeted the work team in an active war zone.

Shielding Mosaics From Destruction And Theft

The archeologists  used the protective sheeting to wrap 1,600 square feet of ancient mosaics. The next step was to protect the Ma’arra museum itself, says Amr al-Azm, a Damascus-trained archaeologist who now teaches Middle Eastern history in Ohio. Some of the “Monuments Men” of Syria are his former students.

“We decided the best way to do this was to actually use a technique that was very commonly employed during the Second World War in Europe and the First World War — and that’s to sandbag,” Azm says.

The sandbags are now stacked on the inside walls of the museum, shielding the mosaics from the blast of regime jets and opportunistic looting.

The Ma’arra project is a small victory in a long war of illicit trade and damage, says Azm — and the team inside Syria stepped up to the challenge.

“In many ways, they are the heroes of our stories,” says Azm. “They are the guys who risk their lives every day, visiting archaeological sites. This comes from their area — this is their hometown, this is their museum. The connection is there.”