By Kelley Tackett, Brown University
As an intern for the Virtual Student Federal Service, working with the Smithsonian Cutural Rescue Initiative for the school year of 2017-18, I have had the opportunity to research in detail sites of cultural significance in Syria and compile data for the ongoing protection of cultural heritage in the region. Beginning with identification for around 300 sites, I worked to condense and categorize these entries based on age, significance, and cultural group(s) which were affiliated with the location. These sites ranged from mosques and graveyards in current use to ruins Roman and older, with a few Neolithic settlements in the mix. Even considering the small set of entries I first began working with, the breadth of Syrian heritage was made clear to me, encapsulating the many different groups who have called Syria their home both past and present.
In cataloguing heritage sites, some were more easily labelled than others. The Roman ruin of Apamaea in the Orontes River Valley of northwestern Syria has earned international attention for its beautiful colonnades and looting damage visible from satellite imaging. The town of Shaykh Ibrahim, which lies in the north of Syria, close to the Turkish border, proved more elusive. This shrine marked as a heritage site shares a name with several famous Shaykh Ibrahims from Syria and the surrounding Levant, and the monument visible at the geographical coordinates is not clear enough to lend any clues regarding its role in the complex history of the Syrian land.
Ithriya Temple via Satellite. Courtesy of Kelley Tackett.
One site which I have greatly enjoyed researching falls between the two extremes detailed above: a small, crumbling Roman structure located in the tiny desert village of Ithriya. Dating from the early third century, the temple was once a part of the Roman town Seriana. This municipality existed at a crossroads, about 130 kilometers from both Hama and Homs, where the temple might have been visited by countless travelers on the road from the far east to the southern Levant or Mediterranean. The temple still lies at a crossroads today, where the road between Palmyra and Qinnasrin meets the route from al-Rasafeh to Salamiyeh. Despite its crumbling façade, the temple continues to stand facing east, elegant pillars in the Corinthian order visible around the splendidly detailed entrance archway.
The temple is itself a journey through the cultural past of Syria. Built during Roman occupation, the settlement was more heavily fortified by the Byzantines, who built a wall encompassing the small town and temple complex. The temple continued to serve as a waystation through the Abbasid and Mamluk rulers, before its abandonment and subsequent reuse as a Bedouin police outpost through modern times.
I am a student of Anthropology and Archaeology at Brown University, and this internship has allowed me to explore the different mediums cultural heritage can assume in addition to analyzing sites of local, state, and even international importance for their documentation and preservation. The field of cultural heritage is a great passion of mine. Through the VSFS program I hope to learn more about opportunities available for cultural protection and the impact I can make through them.