Ancient Karkemish sees modern war on Turkey-Syria border

FILE - In this June 17, 2010 file photo, a land mine expert works in mined land in the Karkemish archaeological site at the Turkey-Syria border in Gaziantep province, Turkey. Despite Syria’s civil war, archaeologists on the Turkish side of border-straddling Karkemish unearthed sculptures, mosaics and other artifacts in relative safety although sporadic gunfire and shelling was occasionally audible from the Syrian side. Now they plan to open the remains of the strategic city from the Hittite era to the public next year, despite the proximity of conflict in neighboring Syria. (AP Photo/File)

The ancient city of Karkemish, which sits between Turkey and Syria, witnessed modern conflict when Turkey sent troops across the border in the same area last month

The tourist gate and ticket house are ready at the ancient city of Karkemish, where Turkish troops crossed last month into Syria and ousted Islamic State militants from the border.

Despite Syria's civil war, archaeologists on the Turkish side of border-straddling Karkemish unearthed sculptures, mosaics and other artifacts in relative safety although sporadic gunfire and shelling was occasionally audible from the Syrian side. Now they plan to open the remains of the strategic city from the Hittite era to the public next year, despite the proximity of conflict in neighboring Syria.

Such are the modern fortunes of Karkemish, which dates back thousands of years and was excavated before World War I by British archaeologists including T.E. Lawrence, later known as Lawrence of Arabia. A century later, the area was demined and a Turkish-Italian team started work at the site controlled by the Turkish military.

Then came Turkey's Aug. 24 military incursion into Syria from the Karkemish area, which could ease security worries about the archaeological park on the Euphrates. Its opening, delayed several times, is scheduled for May 2017.

"The situation is definitely more favorable to tourism," said Nicolo Marchetti, a professor of archaeology and art history of the Ancient Near East at the University of Bologna and project director at Karkemish on the Turkish side.

The February construction of a protective, mile-long (1.7-kilometer) wall on the border, stretching from the train station of the modern town of Karkamis to a railway bridge built by Germans a century ago, was required for the tourist project, Marchetti said.

The prefabricated wall "can be removed swiftly if peace breaks out," he said.

The remains of the citadel and inner town are on the Turkish side, where the most valuable archaeological items of Karkemish lie. But part of the ancient outer town is in the Syrian town of Jarablus, held by IS militants until Turkish ground forces occupied the area.

Marchetti expressed concern about what he called "a void of responsibility" for protection of archaeological heritage on the Syrian side of Karkemish.

Turkey is a party to a 1954 Hague agreement calling for the protection of cultural heritage during armed conflict.

Syria's lawlessness has already fueled widespread looting of artifacts, some of it by IS militants who have also destroyed ancient statues and structures, notably in the ancient town of Palmyra. Russia built what it called a "temporary" military encampment inside a zone that holds the UNESCO world heritage site in Palmyra after militants were driven out earlier this year.

In western Syria, Syrian government forces have used archaeological sites, cutting holes in mounds dating from ancient communities and using them to protect tanks and personnel from any attack from the other side, according to Dan Lawrence, a lecturer in the archaeology department at Durham University in Britain.

A lot of archaeological material on the Syrian side of Karkemish is especially vulnerable because it is just below the ground surface, said Lawrence, adding that he saw video of Turkish tanks moving through Syrian areas where he worked before the civil war.

"Anything you do in that area will have a massive impact on the archaeology," he said.

IS fighters tried to dig a large ditch through the Syrian side of Karkemish earlier this year, but a U.S.-led coalition aircraft destroyed their bulldozer, said Marchetti of the University of Bologna.

Echoing complex conflicts in the region many centuries ago, Turkey supports U.S. airstrikes against the IS while seeking to thwart U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, which are also fighting the Islamic extremists.

The Bible's Jeremiah refers to Karkemish for a battle there in which the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar II, defeated the Assyrians and their Egyptian allies.

In 1516, long after Karkemish's demise, Ottoman imperial forces defeated Mamluk troops at the battle of Marj Dabiq near Aleppo, opening the way to Ottoman conquests in the Middle East. The battle's date was Aug. 24, 500 years to the day before Turkey sent troops into Syria.

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Follow Christopher Torchia on Twitter at www.twitter.com/torchiachris

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