Video footage and photographs released in November 2019 by the Violation Documentation Center/NE Syria (VDC-NSY) and Syrians for Truth & Justice shows fighters of the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front performing military exercises with live ammunition and explosives at the 3,000-year-old Syro-Hittite temple in Ain Dara. The temple, on a hilltop near the city of Afrin, was already heavily damaged by Turkish shelling in January 2018 when Turkey and Turkish-backed groups invaded Afrin. Syrians for Truth & Justice, an NGO based in Europe advocating for human rights and peace in Syria, states that, “this incident is yet another example of wanton disregard Turkey and its allies have displayed towards local cultural heritage in Afrin.”
Video shows military trainings of Turkish-backed National Liberation Front using live ammunition and explosives at the “Ain Dara” archaeological site in Afrin where a Syro-Hittite temple dating back to 1300 BCE is located.
In January 2018, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch and invaded the Kurdish-held district of Afrin in Syria alongside factions of the Free Syrian Army. Turkey considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), an integral part of the larger Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to be directly linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which Turkey considers a terrorist organization. Turkey claims that the YPG has conducted attacks on Turkey from Afrin and aimed with Operation Olive Branch to remove the YPG from Afrin and the Syrian-Turkish border. During the invasion, Turkish bombers shelled the archeological temple site of Ain Dara, east of Afrin river. The site contains an ancient Syro-Hittite temple with large basalt lions and wall reliefs. Both the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) – a Britain-based war monitor – reported severe damage to the 3,000-year-old temple. According to SOHR, a larger part of the Ain Dara temple was destroyed.*
According to the American Schools of Oriental Research working in cooperation with Safeguarding the Heritage of the Near East Initiative, an NGO funded by the US Department of State, the site at Ain Dara is a multi-period archaeological site. The settlement was likely the capital of one of several small kingdoms that arose in the region following the disintegration of the Hittite Empire at the end of the second millennium BCE. During the early first millennium BCE, the settlement was under the control of the Aramean kingdom of Bit Agusi (9th-8th century BCE) which included Aleppo and of which Arpad was the capital. Bet Agusi was incorporated into the Neo-Assyrian Empire by Tiglath-Pileser III during the second half of the 8th century BCE.
The surviving temple sculptures depict (or rather depicted) lions and sphinxes. Massive larger-than-human footprints were carved into the floor possibly depicting the mightiness of worshipped gods. It is unclear to whom the temple is dedicated. Speculation on the matter includes Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, the female goddess Astarte, and the deity Baal Hadad.
Occupation at the site divides into two main phases.**
- The earliest excavated remains date from the late 2nd to early 1st millennium BCE, but occupation at the site began much earlier. This first phase of settlement lasted until ca. the 1st century BCE.
- After a period of abandonment lasting roughly 600 years, a second phase of occupation occurred from the 7th-14th centuries CE.
- By 600 CE, no significant occupation remained in this area.
Images by Michael Danti: Ain Dara temple in 2010
The Ain Dara temple – which UNESCO includes in and describes as the “Ancient Villages of Northern Syria” – is not the only UNESCO World Heritage site damaged by the Syrian Civil War. Since the war began in 2011, there has been major damage to many historical remains, including widespread destruction in the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Palmyra and the Old City of Aleppo. In Palmyra (Syriac-Aramaic: Tadmor, meaning “Wonder”), Islamic State (ISIS) militants demolished the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, the tetrapylon – a stone platform supported by four columns – and part of a theatre. Many of Syria’s (and Iraq’s) ancient sites have been damaged or destroyed as a result of in fighting or destroyed by ISIS for being “idolatrous”.