Iconic Ancient Temple Is Latest Victim in Civil War

The temple at Ain Dara in northern Syria was severely damaged in an airstrike by Turkish forces.

The Ain Dara temple, seen here from the south in 2010, has many rare stone carvings from the Iron Age.

Much of the magnificent 3,000-year-old temple of Ain Dara, with its mysterious and massive footprints and a structure that provides clues for understanding the biblical temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, has been destroyed in a Turkish airstrike.

The temple, one of the largest and most extensively ancient excavated structures in Syria, is famous for its intricate stone sculptures of lions and sphinxes, and for its similarities to Solomon’s Temple—the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem, said to have held the Ark of the Covenant.

A Turkish airstrike destroyed much of the temple on Friday during an attack on the Kurdish-held area south of the city of Afrin, according to the Syrian Ministry of Culture and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Photos and video from the Syrian Observatory and Hawar News confirm that more than half of the temple is gone, including many of the sculptures that ringed the site.

“It’s a blow to the psyche of Syrians and to international observers watching this,” says Marina Gabriel, a Syria analyst at the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) Cultural Heritage Initiatives.

The Ain Dara temple's elaborately carved orthostats, which are large stones set upright in the ground, feature geometric shapes as well as animal forms lining its interior and exterior walls.

Iron Age Temple

The temple at Ain Dara was built more than 3,000 years ago, around 1300 B.C, a time just before Bronze Age kingdoms began to collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The temple is an important piece of religious architecture that documents the end of the Hittite kingdom, a powerful entity that came out of what is modern-day Turkey. In one of the most important battles of ancient history, Ramses II ("Ramses the Great," r. 1279 to 1213 B.C.) fought the Hittites in the Battle of Kadesh, a conflict that ended with the signing of the world's first treaty.

A picture taken January 29, 2018, shows destruction at the 3,000-year-old temple of Ain Dara after it was damaged in Turkish air strikes, according to Syria's antiquities department and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The builders of Ain Dara lined it inside and out with elaborate decorations. Most strikingly, a series of enormous footprints were carved into stone thresholds leading into the temple.

Three times longer than a human foot, archaeologists speculate that the footprints may have represented the passage of a god or goddess. “These are unique in the religious architecture of the region,” says ASOR Iraq and Syria analyst Darren Ashby.

Another carving inside the temple depicts the fertility goddess Ishtar, leading some to believe the temple was built in her honor, and that the footprints are meant to depict her entry into the temple. Some researchers believe, however, that the image of the goddess may have been added by the conquering Assyrians centuries after the temple was built, leaving the meaning of the footprints an intriguing mystery.

The temple’s decoration and architecture bear similarities to the Temple of Solomon, described in the Bible’s book of Kings as the the first Jewish temple built in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount. Because archaeological remains of Solomon’s Temple have not been found, the few remaining temples of that region and time period are invaluable for understanding what the temple might have looked like.

Losing a Rich History

Since Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011, Islamic State fighters have deliberately destroyed a number of archaeological sites in the country, including the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra.

While rebel armies within Syria have also targeted cultural heritage sites in the country, it now appears that Turkish forces, fighting Kurdish troops near the city of Afrin, are an additional threat to the region's history. Satellite imagery reviewed by ASOR shows damage to the central and southeastern parts of the temple consistent with the reported airstrike.

The Syrian regime has condemned the attack as a deliberate assault on the site by Turkey. That’s difficult to confirm, Gabriel says, but international observers are concerned that historical sites may be increasingly targeted in the conflict.

Above: See Syrian Observatory for Human Rights video of Ain Dara after the attack.

“This event marks a shift in tactics that could result in significant destruction of cultural assets over the coming months, in a region that contains a high density of heritage sites and standing ancient remains,” says Michael Danti, an archaeologist at ASOR.

As a cultural heritage site, the Ain Dara temple and nearby villages are protected under international law, though that has not saved others from destruction. Researchers at ASOR say they are concerned that future attacks could destroy more of northern Syria’s rich historical legacy.

Villages at risk in the Afrin region date from the first to the seventh century, and include "architectural remains of dwellings, pagan temples, churches, cisterns, [and] bathhouses,” according to the UNESCO website. 

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