Like the majority of heritage buffs I’ve been shocked in recent years by the deliberate destruction of ancient sites of historical importance in various countries where religious, ethnic or political extremism is taking over. The looting of artefacts in the supposedly secure environment of a museum is also worrying. The very regions where human civilisation developed in the Middle East are constantly under threat due to these conflicts.
One ancient archaeological
site that appears to be surviving despite all the odds is that at Carchemish on
the Turkish border with Syria. Thankfully, being mainly on the Turkish side of
the border is ensuring its survival for now, but a mere 20 metres away is
Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria. To give you an idea of just how
close ISIL is to Carchemish here’s a map showing the area as of May this year.
As the map shows, the original archaeological site straddles the current
The archaeological site at
Carchemish is particularly relevant to lgbt heritage, not to mention Arab
heritage, because it was the first major archaeological dig undertaken by
Lawrence of Arabia.
The site itself was first
excavated in 1876 after it was identified as the Biblical city of Carchemish.
The origins of the site go back over 4,000 years. It became the capital city of
a Hittite kingdom about 3,500 years ago. It was the site of a battle mentioned
in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah between the Babylonian King
Nebuchadnezzar and the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II, which the Egyptians lost.
For several thousand years
the location of Carchemish was lost, though the site was known and
misidentified as another city altogether. Archaeologist George Smith proved its
true identity and major excavations began.
After T. E. Lawrence left
Oxford University a new excavating party was assigned by the British Museum to
which he was invited to join. Lawrence’s undergraduate thesis has been on
medieval architecture in the Middle East, and he was hoping to write a book
about the Crusader castles which he was going to call “The Seven Pillars of
Wisdom”. He never wrote his book on castles though he used the title for a
totally different book.
When he arrived at the
Carchemish site in 1911 there was no Turkey-Syria border – it hadn’t been drawn
up. The area was part of the Ottoman Empire. The empire was on the wane and had
suffered defeat in conflicts involving its eastern European territories. The
major European powers attempted to gain control of the collapsing empire. It
was partly because of this that Lawrence found himself in the best place to be,
at the best time in his life, to become involved in Arabian nationalism. But
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Lawrence chose to live on
site rather than in one of the neighbouring towns of Karkamis or Jerablus. On
occasions he slept out in the open at night on top of the mound at the north of
the site. It wasn’t quite plain sailing for his first season at the dig. At the
end of summer he caught dysentery and malaria, and there was a constant
struggle with the local sheik over who actually owned the site. Lawrence was
actually locked up for trespassing for a short time. Into all this the Germans
were punching their way through the area with their Baghdad Railway. The locals
didn’t like the Germans, they were too bossy and didn’t pay well, so at least
the English were seen as the better of the two. Despite all this Lawrence was
enjoying the dig immensely.
In the second season of
excavations the team built a house on the site in which the archaeologists
lived. This has since been labelled “Lawrence’s House” and is now also the
subject of archaeological excavations in is own right. It too is threatened by
the presence of ISIL just a few metres away in Syria.
By 1912 Lawrence was well
and truly becoming an ally of the Arabs. He became popular because he spoke
Arabic and often mingled with the local people. The site itself had become
well-known across the region, but Lawrence soon found himself the centre of
The 1913 season was one of
the most productive for the dig, both in terms of the volumes of finds and in
their quality. By this time Lawrence had decided that he preferred the Arab
world to the West. He had met his companion Dahoun in 1911. Dahoun was 14 years
old and Lawrence was 24. They spent a lot of time together, and Lawrence
brought mto England on his regular trips back to his hometown. Lawrence’s
family became very fond of the young lad.
The outbreak of the First
World War in 1914 put a stop to the archaeological dig as the British declared
war on the Ottoman Empire. Even though the archaeologists, including Lawrence,
had returned to England the authorities allowed Dahoun to stay on as guardian
of the site. It was finally closed down in 1920 during the period of the Arab
Revolt. The archaeology of the area became insignificant to Lawrence and he
became more and more actively involved in Arab affairs, earning for his famous
name of Lawrence of Arabia and turning him into a hero.
It was almost a century
before excavations resumed at Carchemish, this time led by a joint Turkish and
Italian team. The Syrian section of the site was surveyed in 2009-10 but was
abandoned when the current conflicts forced the team out of the country.
Who knows what is going to
happen to Carchemish in the near future. Plans to turn it into a tourist
attraction seem to have stalled. Hopefully, ISIL will not push across the
border. Nevertheless, the black flag of ISIL casts a dark shadow over the archaeological
site where Lawrence of Arabia discovered his affinity with the Arab world.