Middle East
3:39 am
Fri March 8, 2013

Displaced Syrians Bring Life To Ancient 'Dead Cities'

Originally published on Fri March 8, 2013 9:41 pm

Parts of the northern Syrian province of Idlib are a U.N. World Heritage site, known for its ancient archaeological wonders. Walking along muddy, rocky ground covered in new grass and wild daffodils, we start to see remnants of Roman structures — the columns and doorways of dwellings, temples and churches that date back to the 1st century.

They're known as the Dead Cities, and they trace the transition from ancient pagan Rome to Christian Byzantium. Until recently, they were deserted, frozen in time.

But no longer: smokestacks dot the landscape, evidence of people living underground.

A recent survey by Syrian and international aid workers says there are millions of displaced Syrians inside the country.

In Idlib, villages are now completely empty, and people who fled them are seeking refuge in unimaginable places.

Safety Among The Dead

One such family, which has found refuge underground amid the ruins, invites us downstairs. We walk down through an ornate Roman doorway, and into a dark, man-made room. We had been told these people were living in caves. But it's clear this is something else.

The head of the household is a young father named Abu Khalid. He, his pregnant wife and his little boy escaped the village of Kafrnbouda at night, when the government shelling grew intense. Abu Khalid found his family shelter in a nearby city. The next day he went back; their house had been destroyed.

They fled to another city, but that city got shelled, too. Abu Khalid moved his family just outside the ancient city.

"We were just running away from shelling," he says. "We would be staying here in the forest, among the trees, on the hills. And then we found this — this cave."

Abu Khalid calls it a cave, but it's really a grave — an ancient burial site. He says digging old earth and sand out of the grave and living underground was the only way to keep his family safe from the shelling and the rockets.

We ask him if he found any remains.

He says yes, an entire skeleton.

Abu Khalid says as a Muslim, it's not right to desecrate a grave, so he buried the bones again in the bed-shaped area where we're sitting. We ask him if it's strange to sleep next to such a place.

"People who are alive are much scarier than people who are dead," he says.

Abu Khalid says some 40 families now live in graves across this ancient city. When we hear rockets landing nearby, we understand why.

Abu Khalid and his family have been given a few blankets by local residents, but international humanitarian aid has not made it this far into Syria.

Looting Arrives Along With Refugees

Emma Cunliffe, a researcher at Durham University in Britain, was monitoring the destruction to Syria's vast archaeological and historical heritage even before the uprising began in 2011.

Now she really has her work cut out for her. She says it's hard to see any site destroyed or looted, but the Dead Cities are a particular treasure.

That's because after being built up for centuries, they were abandoned fairly quickly, likely because war cut off lucrative trade routes.

"What was left was very, very well-preserved," she says. "The buildings are still there, up to the second story. So it's actually like walking through this really beautiful ghost town."

Cunliffe says not only are people now using these ghost towns as a place to live, but also as a way to make a living.

Back in the Dead City, we see this up close. We meet a man and his son who show us some stones that look like they've recently been unearthed. They say the diggers have been here. They usually come at night.

The man says two days before, "some people" came and broke open the remains of a church, dug up mosaics, and sold them.

Cunliffe says there are well-established networks for selling such artifacts in the region, especially after the looting of art during the Iraq war. She says one Syrian Bronze Age artifact that was thought to be looted recently sold for $400,000.

The only way to stop such trade is to go after the people who buy the artifacts, she says, and to help the people who are desperate enough to dig them up and sell them.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep, with Renee Montagne.

Syrians reached an appalling milestone this week. The United Nations has now registered its 1 millionth Syrian seeking refuge outside the country. The situation is even worse for those who've stayed. NPR's Kelly McEvers met families in their makeshift homes in Syria's Idlib Province.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: We're walking on this kind of muddy, rocky ground that's just got new grass, wild daffodils and stones. And then you walk up upon this, and you realize it's the ruins of an ancient city.

It's known as a dead city. It's one of hundreds of its kind across northern Syria. Now, it's a U.N. World Heritage Site. These cities date back to the 1st century, and track the transition from ancient pagan Rome to Christian Byzantium. You can still see columns, doorways, arched windows. These cities were some of the most developed rural settlements of the era. Up until recently, they were deserted - frozen in time.

And then peeking out of the ground are smokestacks. People have put their wood-burning stoves into the ground, where they're living.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We meet one family who invites us downstairs. It's raining a bit. It's kind of muddy. The stairs are a bit slippery.

We walk down a dozen or so worn steps, through an ornate Roman doorway and into a dark, manmade room. We had been told these people were living in caves. But it's clear, this is something else.

ABU KHALID: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The young father's name is Abu Khalid. He, his pregnant wife and his little boy escaped their village at night, when the government shelling got really intense. The next day, he went back and found their house had been destroyed.

KHALID: (Through translator) We were just running away from shelling; and we would be staying here in the forest, among the trees on the hills. And then we found these caves. And for example, it took me a month and five days to clean it from the sand.

MCEVERS: Abu Khalid calls it a cave, but it's really a grave - an ancient burial site. He says digging out the grave, and living underground, was the only way to stay safe from the shelling and the rockets. We ask him if he found any remains.

KHALID: (Foreign language spoken)

TRANSLATOR: A whole body, like a body skeleton, and he buried it.

MCEVERS: Abu Khalid says as a Muslim, it's not right to desecrate a grave. So he buried the bones again, in the bed-shaped area where we're sitting. We ask him if it's strange to sleep next to such a place.

KHALID: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: People who are alive are much scarier than people who are dead, he says. Abu Khalid says some 40 families now live in graves across this ancient city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: When we hear rockets landing nearby, we understand why.

Abu Khalid and his family have been given a few blankets by locals. But other than that, zero international humanitarian aid has made it this far into Syria. Researchers who study the destruction in Syria say it's no wonder there's nothing to be done to protect such historic sites. Not only are people living in them, but they're making a living from them.

Before we leave the dead city, we meet a man and his son who show us some stones that look like they've recently been unearthed. They say the diggers have been here. They usually come at night.

So they say that this is part of a church.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah.

MCEVERS: And that two days ago, some people from here came and broke it...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah.

MCEVERS: ...and took the mosaics.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: From here.

MCEVERS: And then sold them?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Maybe. Maybe.

MCEVERS: Antiquities experts say there are well-established networks for selling such artifacts here in the region, especially after the looting of art during the Iraq War.

There's this white and blue mosaic, buried here in the dirt. One Syrian Bronze Age artifact that was thought to be looted, recently sold for $400,000. Experts say the only way to stop such trade is to go after the people who buy the artifacts, and to help the people who are desperate enough to dig them up and sell them.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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