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Italian archaeologists returning to Syria's Ebla after 12 years

'State must give adequate funding' Matthiae tells ANSA

By Silvia Lambertucci (ANSA) - ROME, SEP 3 - Trenches dug among temple ruins, pillboxes set up inside city walls that are thousands of years old, perhaps with some unexploded land mines thrown in - the ancient city of Ebla, discovered by Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae in 1964, endured years of devastation while it was occupied by al-Qaeda rebel militias.
    But, after being liberated by the Damascus government, it will now be possible to render the Ebla archaeological park safe in order to resume excavating at what is recognized as a legend of global archaeology - the most important discovery of the second half of the 20th century.
    The good news was revealed to ANSA by the celebrated archaeologist himself, the emeritus director of the research project, who on Saturday evening will receive an award for Comunicazione dell'Antico (Communication of Ancient Times), a project organized by the Naxos Park in collaboration with Naxoslegge.
    The archaeologist from Rome's La Sapienza University revealed that some members of the Italian mission are set to return to the site at Tell Mardikh, 55 km south of Aleppo, for the first time since 2010.
    They will make the fruit of 47 years of uninterrupted excavation safe and resume work where it was halted 12 years ago.
    "It will take at least three years to set the worksites back up, along with adequate funding," said Matthiae, who, after working ceaselessly to keep attention focused on Syria's cultural heritage as it was damaged by war and terrorism, has made an appeal to La Sapienza and to the Italian foreign ministry to guarantee "all the necessary funding allocations".
    The devastation in Ebla started in 2014 when al-Qaeda militias took control of the archaeological park and laid waste to it with tunnels, trenches and pillboxes that "uprooted the archaeological terrain, above all in the Lower City of the big ancient urban center that was build between 2500 and 1600 BC," he explained.
    It was not until the end of 2019 that the Damascus government gradually took back control of the area and since then the officials of the Directorate General of Antiquity and Museums (DGAM) have got cracking with an exceptional effort to verify the damage, documenting it and photographing, including with drones, the large oval that outlines the borders of what was once one of the most powerful and prosperous city states of the ancient Near East.
    "The good news is that the archaeological park was never bombed," said the 80-year-old archaeologist.
    The devastation, however, is significant and for this reason the Roman mission is planning what is being defined as the "rehabilitation" of the archaeological area.
    In a few days Frances Pinnock and Davide Nadali, the two La Sapienza professors who are leading the mission with Matthiae, will be on site and they will start to study the material safeguarded at the Hama Museum.
    It is a small initial step in the hope that it will then be possible to organize a bigger team and reopen the worksite, which in the past had 120 local workers in operation.
    Powerful like Sargon the Great's Akkad, feared and respected by the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom, Syria's Ebla remained buried in mystery for millennia.
    Its discovery was one of those that changes history, especially from 1975, when excavations brought to light intact the Ebla tablets, almost all of the royal archive of 2350 BC, the most ancient period, with 17,000 inventory items on tablets carved into clay in Cuneiform script, representing a treasure trove of inestimable value about the city's culture, language, trade, weddings, justice, and relations with friendly and enemy peoples.
    Originally there were 5,000 texts which, in the years of absence from Syria, the Italian mission catalogued, studied and published most of.
    They tell the story of a powerful, feared empire that was based in a key area between Mesopotamia and Egypt.
    The city was destroyed and rebuilt three times in the space of 900 years.
    The city walls surrounded an area of 50 hectares - a little less than the Pompeii of many centuries later - of palaces, temples, tombs and fortifications.
    Among other things, the rediscovery of Ebla gave back to Syria a very ancient historical identity to be proud of.
    "It's an archaeological site that potentially still has lots to offer," stressed Matthiae, pointing out that it is estimated that only 10% of it has been excavated.
    Indeed, in the years that on-site activity was suspended, the Rome university concentrated on researching and publishing the huge mass of Cuneiform texts and archaeological material from it, some of which is precious and extremely rare, such as a club engraved with the name of a pharaoh, the likes of which was not found even in the rich tombs of Egypt.
    Concern remains, however, about the destiny of many of these fabulous finds, including thousands of tablets, which are kept in the museum nearby in Idlib, which is occupied by Turkish forces.
    There has been violent looting there.
    "We are certain that at least some of the tablets have been stolen or destroyed," said Matthiae.
    Fortunately all of these treasures had been photographed and catalogued and the documentation is already in the hands of Interpol.
    With a little luck, some tablets may reappear on the antiquities market.
    "The important thing is that, after many years of silence and destruction, a new beginning has started for Ebla," said Matthiae. (ANSA).
   

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