Incident Report Feature: Deir Sunbul (Der Sambil) Village

 
Video footage shows a gunman destroying the remains of Deir Sunbul.

One of The Dead Cities in Idlib (Getty Images)

Deir Sunbul is one of the Byzantine-era “Dead Cities” located on the Jebel Zawiya, which contains dozens of ruins dating to the 4th–8th century CE. Other Dead City sites in the area include Serjilla, Dalloza, Kokaba, Baude, and Sinsharah, all within 10 kilometers of Deir Sunbul. The ruins at Deir Sunbul are scattered among modern houses, and include several villas, dozens of tombs, and a badly ruined church. Many of these structures bear inscriptions, usually of a Christian nature. The few dated inscriptions at Deir Sunbul are from the early 5th century [1].

The two-storied villa in question was described by archaeologist Howard Butler Crosby in 1900 as “the most beautiful of all the residences in the region. [2]” He writes, “The composition of the facade of this house—its pleasing proportions, its large and richly ornamented openings, symmetrically grouped—makes it an imposing and beautiful monument even without its colonnade. [3]” This villa bears no dated inscription, but its style suggests it was built in the 5th or 6th century [4].

A view of the rear of villa from the southwest (Howard Butler Crosby, ca. 1900)

A view of the front courtyard of the villa, from the northeast (Howard Butler Crosby, ca. 1900)

A view of the rear of the villa, from the west (Howard Butler Crosby, ca. 1900)

A view of the front courtyard of the villa, from the east (Howard Butler Crosby, ca. 1900)

The Dead Cities are located on an elevated area of limestone in northern Syria known as the Limestone Massif. The area was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2011 and has been on the World Heritage in Danger List since 2013.

A modern view of the villa from the southwest (Syria Winks/ November 17, 2009)

A modern view of villa from the west (Syria Winks/ November 17, 2009)

The Deir Sunbul region has changed hands many times during the Syrian Civil War due to the strategic position of the town of Maarat al-Numan, located eight kilometers southeast of Deir Sunbul. The area passed back and forth between Syrian regime forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) throughout 2011 and 2012, until a decisive FSA victory in October 2012. Video footage from December 2011 shows damage from small arms fire or shrapnel on the eastern exterior wall.

Video still showing damage to the eastern wall of the villa, seen from the southeast (Freedom Aleppo; December 30, 2011)

Deir Sunbul was targeted by a airstrikes on several occasions in 2012. A video published by the group Le Patrimoine Archéologique Syrien en Danger in April 2012 shows minor damage to the villa’s facade, including two FSA flags graffitied on the western exterior wall.

FSA flags on the exterior western wall of villa and damage to the top of the gable on the southern facade (Le Patrimoine Archéologique Syrien en Danger; April 27, 2012)

 

Deir Sunbul was one of a number of villages near Maarat al-Numan controlled by Jamal Maarouf (founder of the Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade and Syrian Revolutionaries Front) until late 2014 when he was driven out by al-Nusra Front fighters. Maarouf’s headquarters was located in Deir Sunbul. Beginning in 2016, the al-Qaeda-linked group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) increasingly gained a foothold in the area, resulting in sustained protests against HTS by locals in Maarat al-Numan and surrounding villages.

Due to the FSA and HTS presence in the area, Deir Sunbul has been a target for SARG airstrikes on several occasions. One of these airstrikes likely resulted in the collapse of the northern section of the villa. Based on DigitalGlobe satellite imagery and and a damage report provided by The Day After Heritage Protection Initiative (TDA-HPI), this collapse occurred between September 10, 2014 and April 16, 2015. For more information, see the full TDA-HPI report in the ASOR CHI December 2017 Monthly Report.

The villa prior to any significant structural damage, shown within the red box (DigitalGlobe NextView License; September 10, 2014)

Severe damage to the northern part of villa indicated by red arrows (DigitalGlobe NextView License; February 21, 2017)

View of villa from the northwest showing collapse of northern section (SANA; undated, between September 10, 2014 and April 16, 2015)

The villa was further damaged on at least two occasions in 2017. On October 4, 2017 Idlib Antiquities Center published a video showing the destruction of the villa by an unknown gunman.

In the video, prior to its collapse, the only remaining section of the villa is the southern wall. The eastern, western, and northern walls present in the satellite imagery from February 2017 have collapsed, possibly as a result of prior structural damage, another airstrike on or near the site, or the actions of the gunman in the video. The video footage shows the gunman firing at the one remaining wall, which has an FSA flag placed atop it. The gunfire causes most of the wall to collapse.

Video stills showing an unidentified gunman (right) firing at the remains of the villa (Idlib Antiquities Center; October 4, 2017)

Video stills showing the collapse of the villa (Idlib Antiquities Center; October 4, 2017)

The Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) blamed HTS for the destruction of the monument. As part of a cessation of hostilities agreement between HTS and the FSA, HTS agreed to withdraw to the outskirts of Maarat al-Numan, following deadly clashes in the town in June 2017. HTS now controls much of Idlib Governorate, including the region around Maarat al-Numan.

For more information on damage to this site, see ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0177 in the October 2017 Monthly Report.

[1] Prentice, W. K. (1908) Greek and Latin Inscriptions Vol. 3. New York: The De Vinne Press. 199–204.

[2] Butler, H.C. (1899–1900) Architecture and Other Arts. New York : The Century Co. 258–260.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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