This past Friday, six of us headed out in two cars to explore some famous archaeological sites in eastern Syria. We drove about an hour and a half to the historical Euphrates River. We made our first stop at Rasafeh to see the ruins of a huge walled city on the fringes of the desert. Rasafeh is thought to be the Rezeph of the Bible (2 Kings 19:12 and Isaiah 37:12). In the third century, it was the western most boundary of the Roman Empire.
Our next destination was the city of Deir ez-Zor. It was another couple of hours of driving so we checked into Hotel Ziad and then went out to explore the city and eat. The city wasn’t too impressive, but it served as a good spot to explore from and we knew it had a good museum we wanted to visit.
So the next morning we were off to Mari located just 15 miles from the Iraqi border. We noticed as we left Deir ez-Zor that we were being followed by a white 4-wheel drive with two men in it. When we stopped, it stopped. Of course, they were the Syrian secret police but it really gave us a feeling of security having them with us.
After about an hour, we arrived in Mari. It was only by chance that a Bedouin nomad back in 1933 discovers a fragment of a statue that led to the subsequent excavation of a very important archaeological site that helps us understand the ancient history of Syria. There’s not much there now. The artifacts have been taken to the Aleppo, Damascus and Deir ez-Zor museums along with important pieces being displayed in the Louvre in Paris. But the site dates back as far as 4000 BC. It was a powerful independent city-state from 2900-2300 BC with temples being built to gods and goddesses. But the most significant find was 15,000 clay tablets inscribed in Old Babylonian cuneiform script. We saw some of these on display in the museum in Deir ez-Zor.
After a few hours we were off again heading away from the border backtracking our route. Behind us were our silent escorts. A short drive back up the highway took us to the ancient city of Dura Europos. You have to leave the highway and approach the city from the west because it is backed up against the Euphrates. As you approach, you see the expansive and imposing stone wall that was probably built around 17 BC. It stand over 30 feet tall in places. Inside the huge outer wall, all you can see is the partial walls and doorways of what used to be a large and thriving city. There is a Christian chapel there that was converted from a private house around 240 AD and represents the earliest known example of a Christian place of worship in Syria. Murals depicting scenes of Adam and Eve, a shepherd tending his flock and various miracles were uncovered there but are now displayed in the Yale University Art Gallery. It was the Americans and French who carried out the excavations during the 1920s and 1930s. The French are still excavating the Mari site.
After visiting these two sites, it was back to Deir ez-Zor for our second night at the hotel. The next morning we checked out of the hotel, packed up the cars and headed to the museum. After a few minutes, we got a little lost. Our secret service companions realized this and pulled us over. We explained in our best Arabic that we didn’t want to leave Deir ez-Zor, but instead we wanted to go to the museum. They signaled for us to follow them and they led us there.
The museum in Deir ez-Zor is surprisingly good, even better than the museums in Damascus and Aleppo. It was opened in 1996 with the collaboration of Germany, so you can imagine the clear, informative organization that the Germans put into it.
After leaving the museum, we wanted to go to a little café that we had read about for some tea. This time we just told our escorts what we wanted and they again led us to the café. When we left the café, they had us follow them out of town and once we were on the highway, they signaled us to pass them. We waved good-bye, but they just wanted to retake their normal position behind us and they followed us to our next stop as we continued to backtrack to Aleppo.
Our final stop was Halabiye, a fortified site strategically positioned on the Euphrates that was occupied by the famous Queen Zenobia back in the days when she was challenging the Roman Empire. These Arabs have been fighting off Western influence for a long, long time. Just like the site at Rasafeh, the buildings and walls are built out of crystalline gypsum. In its day, it must have looked like a sparkling palace in the desert sun. All that can be seen today date from the sixth century AD when the emperor Justinian refortified the site to defend against the Persians (Iraq). But just like all the Byzantine positions, they eventually fell to the Muslim conquests and were largely abandoned.
This part of Syria is very poor. Adobe-type houses with no electricity or running water in many cases. It is interesting though that throughout Syria we often see shepherds dressed in their traditional clothing tending their flocks just as they have been doing since the beginning of time. It’s easy to feel a real connection with history when you are in a place like Syria.