Latest war victim: Syrian museum of mosaics

The fortress-like Alma Arra museum in northern Syria, famous for its mosaics, may have escaped the looting common in wartime but it is starting to suffer from daily bombings.

And although information boards guiding visitors to the museum's treasures from an ancient era are everywhere to be seen, the tourists have disappeared.

The imposing 17th century building in the heart of Maaret Al Numan, a strategic town in Idlib province captured by rebels last week, houses one of the largest collections of mosaics in the Middle East.

But it is now starting to resemble yet another battered victim of the fierce fighting between Syrian troops and rebels that has gripped northern Syria for months.

In front of its iron-shielded imposing wooden front doors lies a wrecked vehicle riddled with bullets, while from nearby thick black smoke rises from a pile of burning tyres.

A young guard, barely out of his teens, stands guard sporting a green ribbon around his head.

"We will win!" says graffiti scrawled on the walls of the museum by the local rebel brigade, Martyrs of Maaret Al Numan, which has deployed its fighters across the town.

The entrance to the museum boasts a huge "doormat" -- a floor mosaic portrait of Hafez Al Assad, former Syrian president and father of current President Bashar Al Assad.

A group of rebels are out in the courtyard finishing their breakfast. Behind them is a beautiful Roman mosaic showing a wolf chasing its prey.

The courtyard is dotted with mosaics showing ancient capitals and crowded bazaars -- but scattered around are also filthy socks drying in the sun, plastic containers and mattresses used by fighters and before them by regime soldiers.

A four-wheel drive vehicle topped with a 12.7-mm machinegun is parked in the courtyard. The rebels are mainly ensconced in the entrance hallway. Seven regime soldiers captured in the fighting are held captive in an alleyway behind an iron gate.

The rebels overran Maaret Al Numan last Wednesday, a major breakthrough for them in their fight against Assad's forces, especially after they also cut off the highway linking Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo.

Built in 1665 by Sultan Murat Jalabi, the former overnight stopover for travellers has also served over the centuries as an annex to the Grand Mosque, a bazaar, a storehouse and now a museum.

Its collections, well protected in the vault-like structure, date back centuries and variously show animals, hunting scenes and banquets -- the wonders of an art which originated in Ur in Iraq and later spread to ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, enjoying its heyday in the Byzantine period.

Pottery, ceramics and figures of the pre-Islamic era dating from 3,000 to 2,000 BC are also among its treasures, according to the information boards.

Until the end of August the museum was occupied by regime soldiers but since the army fled, the rebels have taken it over.

"We are here to prevent theft, looting and smuggling," says a rebel leader, who gave his name as Abu Ashem.

The insurgents accuse the army of stealing some items, including ancient early Islamic era coins, but surprisingly most of its priceless collection remains intact.

However, while looters have been kept at bay, the museum is facing an equally destructive force -- from the air.

In early October, a bomb dropped by Assad's warplanes landed a few metres (yards) from the building, shattering wooden doors and high windows.

The force of the blast also caused some valuable items to fall from their shelves, leaving statues of Roman goddesses lying on the ground and crushing pottery dating back more than 2,000 years.

Several stone carvings broke and fell on the ground, while some mosaics were also damaged.


For now the ancient calligraphic manuscripts kept in a library remain untouched and tombstones in the courtyard and a collection of black basalt doors from the eighth century are intact.

But with MiG jets dropping bombs on rebel lines daily, there is no certainty that the museum's majestic past will survive the destruction of the tumultuous present.

 

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