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.

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