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Turkey: Italian archeologists dig under the eye of al-Qaeda

On Syria border, Marchetti discovers King Nebuchadnezzar carving

05 November, 19:23

    (by Francesco Cerri) (ANSAmed) - KARKEMISH, NOVEMBER 5 - The New York Times called him ''a tanned, scrawny Indiana Jones'', and Nicolo' Marchetti is surely the only archeologist in the world today digging for the treasures of the past under the watchful eye of al-Qaeda machine guns.

    Marchetti leads the Turkish-Italian team that is unearthing the mythical Hittite capital of Karkemish, which has been named in the Bible, under far from optimal conditions. On the banks of the Euphrates River, the excavation site straddles the border between Turkey and war-torn Syria. First discovered and briefly explored in the early 20th century by T. H. Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia, Karkemish now lies within a mine-infested military zone, 65% of it in Turkey and 35% in Syria.

    Marchetti obtained Turkey's permission to excavate three years ago.

    ''The Japanese offered a million dollars for the concession.

    But they gave it to Marchetti instead. The Turks have a lot of respect for him'', Italian Ambassador Giampaolo Scarante explained. Until this year, everything was more or less calm in Karkemish, which was mostly frequented by refugees and smugglers crossing the border. But in September, the Syrian side of the border fell under al-Qaeda control.

    ''Every day we see pick-up trucks with the black al-Qaeda flag packed with armed militias, passing just 50 meters away from us on the other side of the border'', says Marchetti. Jihadists one side, Italian archeologists on the other: ''We do everything we can to ignore each other''.

    While it's an almost peaceful cohabitation, it is also true that the dig is within a Turkish military base. This offers the Italians a relative sense of safety - except on September 3, when al-Qaeda attacked the Syrian town of Jarabulus, eventually wresting it from the ''official'' anti-Assad Free Syrian Army (FSA) insurgents. ''It was hell on earth. Bullets were flying everywhere'', says Marchetti, who teaches Near Eastern archeology at Bologna University.

    ''Luckily, archeologists dig holes. We dove in. We kept digging inside the deeper ones. The Turkish military kept telling us, stay down''. Calm was restored once the FSA fighters gave themselves up to the Turks in order to flee al-Qaeda. An armed truce has held since, allowing the Italian team to unearth new treasures.

    Marchetti is proudest of a stele, or commemorative slab, carved with the face of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, the conqueror of Karkemish. He destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple of Salomon in 587 BC, and built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were the seventh wonder of the ancient world.

    ''It's a beautiful, compact piece of limestone'', Marchetti enthuses of this unique, historic find. Working with his Turkish colleagues from Istanbul and Gaziantep universities, Marchetti this year has also delved into the past of T. H. Lawrence, who built a home here while overseeing the dig.

    Interrupted in 1914 by World War I, the site was then abandoned for more than a century. 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, and so inadvertently protected the fragments for posterity.


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