Czechs get unique opportunity to carry out archaeological research in Syria

Mahmud Hamud, Michal Lukeš, photo: archive of National Museum in Prague

The National Museum in Prague has been granted a unique license to carry out archaeological research in Syria. Under the agreement, signed by the museum’s director Michal Lukeš and his Syrian counterpart in Damascus, a team of Czech and Syrian archaeologists will be exploring a location in the coastal province of Latakia, the former site of the ancient port city of Ugarit.

Mahmud Hamud,  Michal Lukeš,  photo: archive of National Museum in Prague
For several years now, the Czech National Museum has been involved in attempts to save Syria’s rich archaeological heritage, including UNESCO monuments, which are threatened to be destroyed in the country’s ongoing armed conflict. The efforts have been part of a wider programme of humanitarian help agreed by the Czech government in 2016.

Now, the National Museum has landed a unique chance to carry out excavations in one of the country’s most interesting archaeological sites. The agreement on establishing a joint Czech-Syrian archaeological mission was signed by the National Museum’s director, Michal Lukeš and the head of Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums, Mahmud Hamud, in Damascus last week, on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition on Czech castles and chateaux.

Michal Stehlík, deputy to the National Museum’s director, outlines more details:

“Receiving this license is really very unique. It is not easy to get a permit for archaeological research in this location and it is usually very expensive. The Syrian conservationists have granted us this license due to our long-term cooperation in saving Syria’s heritage.”

Located at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe, Syria has an incredibly rich architectural heritage, which bears witness to many of the world’s greatest empires. The Czech-Syrian archaeological research will take place in the coastal province of Latakia in the west of the country, located on the site of the ancient Kingdom of Ugarit, which was destroyed during the Bronze Age:

Ras Shamra  (Ugarit),  photo: LorisRomito,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“Syria itself, together with Mesopotamia and Egypt, is considered one of the cradles of civilisations. The history of Ugarit dates back to 2,000 years B.C. There have been some discoveries made already in the 1920s, showing its connections to the Hittite Empire and to the nation of Amorites. So it was really one of the oldest settlements in the world.

“So I think we have a big chance of finding some evidence of the Ugarit Kingdom and their trade links with the rest of the world and I would say this research is unique not only in the Czech and Central European context, but in the context of the whole world.”

The Czech team of archaeologists is expected to leave for Syria already in the autumn to carry out initial mapping of the area. The first excavations are expected to start in the spring of 2020.

Unlike other locations, such as Aleppo or Palmyra, the province of Latakia has luckily remained more or less untouched by Syria’s ongoing civil war.