Letters From The Field

Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.

Close to conflict – a report from the Turkish-Syrian border

A letter from Turkey. In which is given an impression of the situation close to a conflict zone. Also lamenting illicit antiquities trade.

South-eastern Turkey, October 2014


I know I don’t have to tell you this, yet field research is a major part of the archaeologist’s job. Sometimes excavations can take place within or in the vicinity of urban areas, but often work leads us to the more remote places at the fringe of civilization. Well, and sometimes we just find ourselves in the middle of day-to-day policy. As you know I was participating in expeditions in the Near and Middle East over the last couple of years. This is not only one of the most interesting and important regions in regards to the cultural evolution of our kind (from the ‘Neolithic Revolution’, that moment in history when our highly mobile hunter-gatherer ancestors turned towards a sedentary, farming way of life to the early advanced civilizations in Mesopotamia and beyond, this region has been in the centre of world’s history – I bet you payed attention in class and spare you the details), but – unfortunately – in recent centuries it also has a long and tragic history of conflict and violence. Of course you know, the news are full of it. The situation got more complicated in the wake of the so-called Arabellion or ‘Arab Spring’ – the revolutionary wave of demonstrations throughout large parts of the Arab world which lead to political reforms in some, but also violence and instability, crisis and civil war … an ‘Arab Winter’, if you’d like to stay with the metaphor. This dramatic development meant a tragic break within the lives of people there and to archaeologists working in the region it meant a lot of areas of operation and research suddenly were lost …


Maybe you remember that I am currently involved in field work at a site in Anatolia in the very southeast of Turkey, not far from the town of Şanlıurfa. Due to ethnic composition of the population in that area, with a large Kurdish minority – or rather majority – (depending on character and intention of sources, Kurds may make up to 18% of the Turkish population and according to a 1965 census about 60% of south-eastern Turkey’s inhabitants named ‘Kurdish’ their mother tongue) and a strong movement for greater Kurdish autonomy, some cultural and political tension is apparent in the region for a long time already. During the right-left-wing armed conflicts in the 1970s, in particular under the impression of the PKK conflict, the region became known for its rather complicated and unstable political situation plagued with assaults and attacks during the 70s to the 90s – eventually resulting in parts of Turkey being put under martial law in 1978. In the following years truce and negotiation were either unilateral or simply not permanent; only from 2009 on peace talks were started with caution, however only slowly progressing. When, with the recent civil war in Syria the situation reached a new culmination, in particular due to the 2012 Syrian-Turkish border clashes.

It was the very year, in October 2012, when we were in the middle of our autumn excavation campaign again, as one day a number of alarmed notes from home arrived. Apparently, those who stayed behind learned earlier of the tragic news of that day than us who spend the hours digging in the field. A mortar bomb fired from Syria landed across the Turkish border in the town of Akçakale, killing a woman and four children, maybe you’ve read about it as well. This border town is situated only about 50 km away from where we were staying and working, so the worries of our families were comprehensible. However, until that very moment none of us had thought about the conflict and everyday drama right on our doorstep; we even didn’t notice to be honest. Somehow life in town just went on and so did our business. Families and friends were calmed with the remark that everything was fine and conflict still was rather abstract and distant.

How did the situation change now, two years time passed? In the wake of unrest and civil war, political forces and organizations formed or increased influence and control; one of those (hard to escape in the media as of late, you surely heard about them too) being the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIS, ISIL or IS): an extremist jihadist group forming a self-proclaimed caliphate and unrecognized state in Iraq and Syria, claiming religious authority and political control over all Muslims worldwide.


Again it is October and again we’re sitting in Turkey’s southeast close to the Syrian border. Again the news are reporting on fighting and struggle nearby. This time it is the siege of Kobanê, a northern Syrian border town also known by its Arabic name Ain al-Arab, inhabited by Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Armenians. Apparently, Kobanê happens to be also just a few kilometres away. Armed IS forces occupied much of the Canton, seizing and desolating more than 100 in particular Kurdish villages in the area. People are fleeing. More than 100,000 refugees were leaving their homes heading toward the Turkish border. Now we had to notice, we had to reflect what was happening there. I mean, all of this – right in front of us! Suddenly, the conflict was close and very present in our everyday life as well. Syrian refugees apparently more and more observable in town; exhausted people camping along the road. Close-lipped men and desperate women with hungry children. Pleading. Begging. The situation worse with every day passing. People felt abandoned. They got despaired. Angry. Protests were forming, not only in the border region where frustration turned into violence, but in all of Turkey. All over the world, actually. Sitting in the courtyard of the excavation house in the old town of Urfa, we could hear the protesters out in the streets. The screaming. The shooting. As much as the deafening sound of fighter jets flying at low altitude already had become a common background noise. We’ve witnessed the thick black smoke rising beyond the border, telling of whole villages burning down. We’ve faced busloads of refugees on the road coming from the border while other busses with Kurdish volunteers, waving flags and guns, were on their way into the opposite direction.

The situation: worse with every day passing. It’s too late to just look the other way and go on with ‘business as usual’. There’s a humanitarian catastrophe, I’m telling you – not in the making, but very manifest already. Not an exactly pleasant to note to end this letter from the field with, I’m afraid.


PS: Forgive the occupational habit and inserted side note, but as archaeologist I am – next to the humanitarian tragedy which is obviously evident – also worrying about the substantial loss in ancient sites and cultural heritage in the wake of conflict. Heritage sites are destroyed in the course of fighting and for religious rivalry and extremism – historical buildings bulldozed, sanctuaries blown up, sculptures smashed. And there this does not seem to be enough, archaeological finds and antiques are discovered to be a valuable source of income. Hence, those sites not simply blown away and shattered to pieces are ransacked and looted, objects ripped out and sold. Sold and lost – for science and for humankind. Sold on the international art market, bought by wealthy and distinguished collectors. To just get to the point: Illicit antiquities trade could fund international terrorism! Go figure.

8 comments on “Close to conflict – a report from the Turkish-Syrian border

  1. vandyvu
    March 26, 2015

    I stumbled upon your blog today and I have to tell you that I enjoyed reading every word and gazing into every photo while day dreaming that I was in that same spot. Thank you for sharing.

    • J.N.
      March 26, 2015

      And I thank you for stopping by and leaving this nice comment. Glad, you enjoyed the travelogue!

  2. John Hayes
    May 20, 2015

    I traveled to Sanliurfa with my wife in Dec 2012. Was peaceful there, the people so friendly, the calls to prayer so beautiful. We have fond memories of singing Kurdish folks hymns our guide taught on the way to Gobekli Tepe and Harran. It’s so sad what is happening in the area. I think about the people I met every day, hoping they are safe and well.

    Thank you for taking me back there. I’m looking forward to reading more about your travels and archaeological work…

  3. Pingback: Should I stay or should I go now? A renewed report from the Turkish-Syrian border | Vagabond's Log

  4. Pingback: Should I stay or should I go now? Renewed report from Turkey’s southeast | Vagabond's Log

  5. Pingback: Should I stay or should I go now? Renewed report from Turkey’s southeast | Sincerely yours, Jens

  6. Pingback: “You’re going where?!” – On returning to the south-eastern Turkey. | Letters From The Field

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2014 by in Reflecting and tagged , , , , , .

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