Syria's Disappearing Palace

Terence Mirabelli investigates why Syria is losing an archaeological site.

Syria is on its way to losing an archaeological site, in its coastal city of Lattakia, because of a lack of funds and, ultimately, forgetfulness.

In November 1976 Syria's president, Hafez Assad, ceremoniously placed the foundation stone of a US $2.5 million hotel on a spot where construction workers subsequently found archaeological remains. When the Department of Antiquities heard of the find it created such a fuss that the site of the new hotel had to be moved. And today the modern, eight story Meridien Hotel stands some 200 yards from its foundation stone.

Whilst the hotel was being built, a team of Syrian and French archaeologists started to excavate the newly-discovered site, which turned out to have been a sizeable settlement. The settlement, like the hotel, is situated on a peninsula – Ras Ibn Hani – two miles north of Lattakia and is contemporary with the ancient city of Ugarit, about three miles further north. Ugarit has been dated to the seventh millennium BC, although surface ruins date from the fifteenth to the thirteenth centuries BC. The kingdom of Ugarit covered half of the northern part of today's district of Lattakia; and the majority of its people were Canaanites. Ugarit was an important commercial centre, but was destroyed in the thirteenth century BC by the Sea People – whom some think were the Philistines. Initially archaeologists concentrated their work in the immediate vicinity of the Meridien's foundation stone, where they unearthed a number of small buildings and found a great deal of smashed pottery.

Later, and some 300 yards away, a royal palace was discovered in August 1983. The belief that this may have been a royal residence was based on the fact that it was designed in a similar way to the royal palace at Ugarit, albeit on a smaller and less grand scale. Like the palace at Ugarit, it has several small rooms and a series of ante-chambers which lead to the main hall. Also discovered in the palace was a sepulchral vault and a well. Fragments of pottery and lead objects were found scattered in several rooms and chambers. An aqueduct, which bisects the main hall, was built by the Greeks at a later date.

Archaeologists think the site may have been a resort for Ugaritic aristocracy. However, the settlement's siting somewhat jeopardises the resort theory. Because it is situated on a peninsula, this affords it both strategic and economic importance. And until this and other questions are satisfactorily answered, Syrian archaeologists prefer not to comment on the significance of the Ras Ibn Hani find. Unfortunately, we may never have the answer.

I visited Lattakia in the summer of 1983, the dig's heyday, and stayed at the Meridien. It was fascinating watching, from my balcony, archaeologists and their assistants, armed with brushes, diligently sweeping away at the packed soil in search of clues, and later wandering around the site. I returned to Lattakia earlier this year and again stayed at the Meridien. I was excited to see how much more of the settlement had been excavated; how large would it now be?

The view from the balcony had dramatically changed. The site had disappeared. 'What's happened to the ruins across the road?', I asked the concierge. 'I don't know.

I never knew there were any here'. What had been a hive of scientific activity in the summer of 1983 is now a field of waist-high weeds and brambles. It is now virtually impossible to find any trace of the Ugaritic settlement. Even using the hotel's foundation stone, as a reference point, was no help in pinpointing the precise location of the site, particularly the palace.

Dr Naoras Daker, Syria's Minister of Tourism, meanwhile, knows what happened: 'Unfortunately there is not enough money to continue the excavation,' he explained. 'We were obliged to re-bury what had been uncovered until such time as sufficient funds are forthcoming,' Daker added.

Nowadays, the Ras Ibn Hani peninsula is a popular picnic area during the day and a favoured spot for Lattakia's lovers in the evenings. Inevitably it has also become something of a rubbish tip. Possibly worse still is the fact that the area has not been fenced off, and cars can – and are – driven over the now softly- packed soil that covers the settlement. More, and possibly irreparable, damage may be caused in September when the Tenth Mediterranean Games are held in Lattakia. As the stadia where the Games will be held are a few hundred yards from the Ras Ibn Hani, it is likely that the site may be used as a car park.

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