History is under siege across the Middle East and North Africa. Due to armed conflict, looting, construction, tourist traffic, water and wind erosion almost 20,000 sites are believed to be at risk. To help bring attention to the precarious situation, a team of British researchers recently launched the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) Database, an online resource that assesses the current condition of heritage sites and details threats to their survival.
A combination of the revolutionary upheavals of the Arab Spring, conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen; construction and agriculture projects, tourism and just plain old weather have put the diverse archaeological sites of the Middle East and North Africa at increasing risk over the last few years. To document and publicize this serious threat to history and heritage, a team of British researchers supported by the Arcadia Fund, a nonprofit organization, has created the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) Database, which was recently made available online to the public.
“You want to raise awareness as to why is it important, why is the heritage important, why is the past important, why should we care about it?” Robert Bewley, professor of archaeology at Oxford University and director of the EAMENA project, told HISTORY of the motivations behind the database. “If we don’t know about it or know that it’s there, then people will say, well it’s not important.”
“But if we say well, it’s just in the next field there—that was a Roman site and just next door is an Islamic site, or a prehistoric site, or a site related to the great Arab revolt in the 1920s. It can bring it alive in a way it wouldn’t otherwise.”
Here are just a few of the nearly 20,000 sites currently at risk:
Petra – Jordan
One of the world’s most famous archaeological sites, Petra has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and was the thriving capital of the Nabataean empire from 400 B.C. to 106 A.D. The caravan-city, situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, is under threat from environmental factors like rock slides, flooding and humidity, as well as man-made issues like looting, animal grazing and mass tourism. Partially carved into the rock itself, Petra boasted elaborate tombs and temples and a sophisticated water system. EAMENA records show the site, which served as a key crossroads between Arabia, Egypt and Phoenicia, to be in fair condition.
St. Catherine’s Monastery – Egypt
Located in the remote desert mountains of the southern Sinai Peninsula, this is the oldest working monastery in the world, having been in continuous use since the sixth century A.D. Sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews, the monastery is a popular tourist site. According to the EAMENA database, St. Catherine’s is in good overall condition, but is under threat due to construction of new local transport and infrastructure, as well as tourism. In April 2017, after ISIS vowed to attack Christians in Egypt, gunmen opened fire on a police checkpoint outside the monastery, killing one policemen and wounding four.
Jericho – Palestine
According to UNESCO, the ancient city of Tell al-Sultan (Jericho) is the oldest town on Earth, as well as the lowest (258 m below sea level). Famous for its appearances in the Bible, most notably its conquest by Joshua (Joshua 6:26), Jericho has been almost continuously occupied since the 10th millennium B.C. It’s located in the plain of the Jordan Valley, just north of the Dead Sea, and the site is now marked by a large artificial mound covering an area of about one acre. The EAMENA database marks the site as being poor condition, due to such threats as agricultural development, road construction and bulldozing.
Ebla (Tell Mardikh) – Syria
At the height of its power in the third millennium B.C., the Bronze Age kingdom centered in Ebla dominated northern Syria, Lebanon and parts of northern Mesopotamia (now Iraq). Excavations at the site beginning in the mid-1960s uncovered a trove of artifacts dating to that period, most famously some 17,000 cuneiform tablets and fragments. According to UNESCO, illegal digs and excavations using heavy machinery have since been reported at the site. More recently, the EAMENA database records damage from military conflict and looting; Tell Mardikh is located about 55 km southwest of Aleppo, the hardest-hit city in Syria’s ongoing civil war.
Zabid – Yemen
This coastal town was reportedly founded in the ninth century A.D., and from the 13th to the 15th centuries it served as the capital of Yemen and the cultural and political center of the Rasulid dynasty. According to UNESCO, it has the highest concentration of mosques in all of Yemen, with some 86 houses of worship. Zabid played a key role in spreading Islamic teachings because of its highly regarded university, which attracted students from all over the world. Since violent civil war erupted in Yemen in 2015, Zabid and other heritage sites in Yemen have been on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. The EAMENA database records the condition of the site as fair, with continued threats from explosion, gunfire and heavy weaponry.
Byblos – Lebanon
Perched on a sandstone cliff some 40 km north of Beirut, this ancient city has been continuously occupied since the Neolithic period. An important Phoenician commercial center during the third and second millennia B.C., Byblos was also the birthplace of the Phoenician alphabet, ancestor of today’s Hebrew and Arabic alphabets. Back in 2006, UNESCO reported war-related damage to Byblos from an oil spill at a local power plant. EAMENA recorded this damage, as well as threats from tourist activity and potential future construction in the region.
Bu Njem – Libya
This Roman fort in western Libya was built in the third century A.D., during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, as one of three new outposts guarding the route from the Sahara into the Roman territory of Tripolitania. Known as Gholaia in Roman times, the fort also included a settlement, cemetery and temples. According to EAMENA research, archaeologists who excavated the site in the 1960s and ’70s found documents written on broken pottery fragments (called ostraca), which provided a glimpse of daily life in a Roman military settlement on the desert frontier. The database lists the site as in poor condition, largely due to agricultural development and wind erosion.
Thysdrus (El Jem) – Tunisia
The ruins of the Roman town of Thysdrus, which dated to the late third century B.C., may be buried underneath the modern city of El Jem, but its world-famous amphitheatre still towers above the rest of the city’s buildings. Built around 238 A.D. of stone blocks with no foundation, the colosseum was believed to hold up to 35,000 spectators, and served as one of the most impressive examples of Roman architectural prowess in North Africa. Today, the EAMENA database records the site as in poor overall condition due to threats from construction, agricultural development and environmental causes.
Sir Bani Yas Monastery – United Arab Emirates
Located in the Persian Gulf some 170 km southwest of Abu Dhabi, the natural island of Sir Bani Yas is known mostly for its vast range of wildlife, including ostrich, gazelle, deer, dolphins and sea turtles. But around 600 A.D., a group of some 30-40 monks are believed to have founded the only permanent settlement ever established on the island, including this ancient pre-Islamic, Christian monastery. According to a report in the National, the site was first excavated in the 1990s, under the patronage of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding president of the UAE, who used the island as a retreat. The EAMENA database records the monastery site as in good condition, but subject to archaeological and agricultural threats as well as tourism.
Qasr Bshir – Jordan
Construction of this well-preserved Roman fort, located in central Jordan, can be dated definitively to between 293-305 A.D. thanks to its dedicatory inscription, which is amazingly still in place above the main gate. It was called Castra Pretorii Mobeni during its fortress days. EAMENA notes that the site is in good condition, but has been damaged by looting and graffiti, as well as seismic activity.