Armenian Genocide archaeology at risk in Syrian Civil War

Ararat magazine recently reported on Syria and the Mass Graves of the Genocide, warning that the Syrian Civil War could endanger archaeological evidence of the Armenian Genocide.

Obviously, the most important thing is the safety of the civilian population; but the safety of Syrian cultural heritage, including the negative heritage of the Armenian Genocide, is also important. This is especially true as damage to or destruction of mass graves from the genocide could constitute ethnic cleansing, and presage further, direct violence against the living.

There is a high risk of this damage, destruction and violence: first, because these crises are disrupting already-fragile economies, impoverishing people, making people damage sites just to be able to feed their families; second, because these crises are causing fear of others, and empowering/freeing extremists to attack vulnerable minorities; and third, because the Turkish Armed Forces may establish a buffer zone within Syria, encompassing the mass graves.


I have my sources; but I do not know enough about Syria or the 2011 Syrian Uprising to discuss either in detail, or to do either justice. Apart from newspapers, television, Twitter and personal sources, there is: a very well-curated Wikipedia page; a revolutionary Information Center on Facebook; al Jazeera’s spotlight on Syria (including a timeline of the revolution’s key events); and lots of stuff on the Guardian and the Economist, including an article on the reasons for the uprising.

A too-brief history of modern Syria

Previously a subject of Ottoman imperialism and French colonialism, Syrians achieved independence and democracy in 1946. There was a military coup d’etat in 1951; but popular protest regained (an admittedly, but understandably, unstable) democracy in 1954. United with Egypt in 1958, a coup split Syria off in 1961; then two years of more coups and turmoil. Since 1963, Syrians have endured autocratic Ba’athist rule; they have lived under a permanent state of emergency. On 26th January 2011, the Arab Spring sprang in Syria; and now, the regime’s repression of the people’s struggle for democracy has descended into civil war between the state and the Free Syrian Army.

Collateral damage of Armenian mass graves in the Syrian Civil War

American-Armenian photojournalist Alexandra Avakian visited Syria in 2005, on the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. There is a slide show of photos from that visit above the article: it documents mass graves along the line of the old bed of the river Khabur; they contain the skeletons of death-marched women and children. Avakian noted that

Syria has a proud record of having helped the Armenian refugees during and after the Genocide. Syrian-Armenians have thrived and their culture has been embraced in Syria. Syrians know well what happened to the Armenians in 1915, on their land, a part of the Ottoman Empire back then.

However, she also noted an unspecified ‘unconfirmed report’ that Syria has given its Ottoman documents on the genocide to Turkey. That would be bad news: politically-inconvenient researchers are denied access to Turkey’s archives, and certain archives are completely sealed.

Worse, the archaeological sites are being made inaccessible, and being damaged and destroyed:

Shadadeh is closed because it’s an oil field.
The Ras ul Ain site on the Turkish border is occupied by farmers who crush skulls and toss bones aside every time they work the land. That land is owned by the Syrian Wakf (Islamic Trust) and is adjacent to a Muslim graveyard. Part of the site was under construction when I was there.
Another mass grave site is long thought to be under Hafez al-Assad Reservoir.

As Avakian asks,

If Turkey makes good on a threat to create a buffer zone between Syria and Turkey, will the Ras ul Ain mass grave be under Turkish control? What then of the future of that mass grave?

Both parts of this question are terribly real possibilities. Turkey may invade Syria and establish a buffer zone on Syria’s side of the Syrian-Turkish border (which could be good for Syrians in general, but it could be very bad for Syrian Armenians, and especially bad for Syrian Kurds). And Turkey may gain control over the Ras ul Ain mass grave.

Xirabebaba/Kuru, in south-eastern Turkey, is a nightmare vision of a Turkish buffer zone in Syria: destroyed Armenian mass grave, ruined Kurdish homes.


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