This Archaeology Site Is Guarded by 500 Turkish Soldiers

The excavation of a 5,000 year old city on the Turkey-Syrian border continues despite nearby presence of the Islamic State extremists

Karkemish procession
Previously excavated art from the ancient city of Karkemish Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis

The ancient city of Karkemish, a 5,000-year-old site near the northwestern edge of what was Mesopotamia, holds mosaic floors, stone monuments, hieroglyphics and 65-foot-tall walls. One of the last teams to work on the site came from the British Museum and included Lawrence of Arabia. But now the excavation of this historic capital is surrounded by 500 Turkish soldiers, tanks and artillery, reports the Associated Press. The heavy guard is necessary because the site is just tens of feet from Islamic State-controlled areas. 

The Syrian city of Jarablous, just over the Turkey-Syria border, "now flies the black banner of the Islamic extremist group," writes the AP. But the project director, Nicolò Marchetti of the University of Bologna, is undeterred: "Basically we work 20 meters away from the ISIS-controlled areas," he says. "Still, we have had no problem at all. ... We work in a military area. It is very well protected."

Researchers resumed excavation on Karkemish in 2011 after work was halted by World War I. Now, the dig includes the house used by T.E. Lawrence and Sir Leonard Woolley during their work from 1911 to 1914. writes of the site’s importance:

Here, kings and conquerors of the Mittani, Hittite, and Neo-Assyrian empires established seats of power and here, the Babylonian forces of Nebuchadnezzar II defeated the combined troops of Pharaoh Necho II of Egypt and Assyrian allies at the Battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C.

Conflict has long made archeological sites and valuables vulnerable to looting and illegal digs. In some cases, the best hope researchers have is to document the damage through aerial photographs in areas where it is too dangerous to investigate on the ground. But the archaeologists in Turkey are determined to make the best of the situation, at least for the Turkish side of the excavation site. The AP reports that important finds this year have already been made:

Among this year's finds were sculptures in the palace of King Katuwa, who ruled the area around 900 B.C. There were five large orthostats in limestone and basalt, a dark grey to black rock, that portray row of individuals bearing gifts of gazelle. An orthostat is an upright stone or slab that forms part of a structure.

Marchetti says that the plan is for tourists to visit next spring. A 13-foot-high wall will be erected around the site. "This will be a total protection for the tourists," he says. 

Editor's note, August 10, 2017: This story has been updated to reflect that Nicolo Marchetti is an archaeology professor at the University of Bologna and not Bolonga.

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