Turkey/Syria: Carchemish – excavations on the border of a warzone

On a site where once three empires clashed, where now three shifting forces fight over the scraps of a nation-state, archaeologists keep their heads down literally as well as metaphorically, as extremists drive by and bullets fly over.

A site of conflict in conflict

The ancient city of (Hittite) Kargamış(1) and (Greek and Roman) Europos has been a site of conflict since its earliest history. It was where the Babylonian army of Nebuchadnezzar II defeated the Assyrian army of Ashur-uballit II and the Egyptian army of Necho II. It was first dug by the British Museum in 1878, when it was in the Ottoman imperial province of Aleppo. Its excavations were interrupted by the First World War and the Turkish War of Independence, since when it has been cut in two by the Turkish-Syrian border and militarised (and, since the 1950s, mined).

When I tried to visit, in 2007, I spent half the day in Öğüzeli police station then the Turkish military prohibited me from even going back to the village, let alone on to the site. But times have changed.

From 2009 until 2011, the (Global Heritage Fund (GHF)-supported) University of Durham and the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria were surveying the Syrian side of the site; but they were stopped by conflict too. Simultaneously but contrastingly, the Turkish side has been de-mined and re-opened, though the entire site is still militarised and paramilitarised (in the north, by the Turkish Armed Forces; in the south, by first Syrian regime forces, then Syrian rebel forces, now Syrian Islamist forces).

Now, the University of Bologna, Istanbul University and the University of Gaziantep are excavating the inner city. At least the Turkish section of the site and a stretch of the Euphrates river will be developed into a national park (designed by architects Alessandra Giacardi and Massimo Ferrando) and tourist attraction (and nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site), though even then visitor access will be managed to avoid any risk of tourists triggering an undetected mine.

Commitment triumphs over cash

According to ANSAmed journalist Francesco Cerri, a Japanese team ‘offered a million dollars for the concession‘. Before any archaeologists panic unduly, I believe Cerri meant the Japanese team offered to invest $1m in the site’s excavation and development. However, the Turkish Ministry of Culture accepted a $280,000 bid from the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Italian Ministry for Education and The University of Bologna ($250,000) and the GHF ($30,000 for conservation).

Again before archaeologists panic unduly (okay, more duly…), it appears that Italian archaeologist Nicolò Marchetti’s long-term commitment to his work in Turkey won his team the project. According to the New York Times‘ Susanne Fowler, the Turkish authorities respect Marchetti, because he speaks fluent ‘village Turkish‘ and (as Italian ambassador Gianpaolo Scarante noted) ‘has an excellent reputation with the local people’ (which would be practically impossible if he couldn’t speak with them in their own language). Ambassador Scarante observed that Marchetti ‘is a friend of everyone here. For an archaeologist, it’s very important.

Ethical archaeology

Happily for me, in a poor region made poorer by the conflict over the border, Marchetti’s aims are not solely academic; he wants ‘to help the locals who have welcomed him and his team by helping to create a sustainable source of income and inspiration that will last beyond the current excavations’. Personally, I believe that economic ethics should be as fundamental to excavations as cultural and environmental ethics.

Big politics

Scarante explained that ‘[e]verything is more difficult now,… not because of politics [within Turkey], but because the site is in a delicate geographical position‘. Under regime and secularist rebel control, Karkamış was ‘more or less calm… mostly frequented by refugees and smugglers‘. It became ‘hell on earth’ when fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) drove out secularist forces (in September 2013).

Luckily, archeologists dig holes‘, Marchetti told Cerri. ‘We dove in. We kept digging inside the deeper ones. The Turkish military kept telling us, stay down’, though I rather doubt they needed reminding, as ‘[b]ullets were flying everywhere’. Eventually, the secularist fighters “surrendered” to the Turkish army and peace was restored; now, archaeologists and al-Qaeda fighters see each other across the border and ‘do everything [they] can to ignore each other’.

The archaeology of archaeology

The Italian-Turkish team is simultaneously investigating one of their forerunners, T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), who built himself a home away from home – a house on site – with local materials…

In the ruins of his house, the Italians discovered a marvelous 2,000-year-old mosaic, which Lawrence had used to pave his living room floor. They also found more than 300 precious fragments of sculpture and hieroglyphics.

They are perfectly preserved – not because Lawrence was a particularly tidy man, but because the Turks, who occupied the site in 1920, mixed them with cement to build walls and floors.


1: Kargamış is variously called and transliterated as Karkamış, Karkamish, Karkemish, Carchemish…

One Comment to “Turkey/Syria: Carchemish – excavations on the border of a warzone”

  1. When the University of Edinburgh was digging at Jerablus-Tahtani in the 1990s, we lived on the lower slopes of Carchemish tell – but on the Syrian side of the border. Jerablus was such a one-horse town, it is so painful to know that the fighting has swept over it.

    On another matter – Sam, please check your email or give me a call.


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