ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI)
Safeguarding the Heritage of the Near East Initiative
Current Status of the Raqqa Museum
Michael D. Danti, Richard Zettler, Darren P. Ashby, Khaled Hiatlih, Ristam Abdo, Amer Ahmed, Muntser Qasim, Allison Cuneo, Marina Gabriel
January 5, 2017
The Raqqa Museum and its storerooms in nearby Heraqla are dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of the cultural heritage of Raqqa Governorate. Though small in comparison to the museums in Damascus and Aleppo, the Raqqa Museum contains an important collection of excavated remains that date from prehistory to the modern day. Prior to the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the museum was an important local employer and a symbol of civic pride and Raqqawi identity.
The museum is located in the middle of Arafat Square at the southern end of Raqqa’s Old City district. It moved to its current location in 1981, a former Ottoman government facility constructed in 1861. In addition to the museum, the building also contains the offices of the Raqqa Governorate division of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM).
The museum’s collections span the entirety of human history in the region, from the Epipaleolithic to early modern times. The wider region contains a wealth of archaeological sites, including Tell Sabi Abyad, Tell Bi'a, Tell Chuera, Tell Munbaqa, Tell es-Sweyhat, Hammam et-Turkman, Halawa, Tell Sheikh Hassan, and Tell Zeidan. The collections also reflect the main periods of occupation of the city of Raqqa, founded in the Hellenistic period as Nikephorion/Kallinikos and successively occupied through the Roman and Byzantine periods. The pre-modern city reached its zenith during the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258 CE), rising to prominence under Caliph al-Mansur (714–775 CE) and serving as a capital from 796 to 809 CE during the reign of Caliph Harun al-Rashid (763–809 CE). The museum housed a large collection of Islamic-period remains, which primarily originate from the Abbasid occupation and from later palaces and fortifications excavated within the city.
The museum’s on-site storage consists of two small storerooms on the second floor of the building. The majority of its collections were stored in a series of buildings near the Abbasid-period fortification at Heraqla, located ca. 7.5 km west of the museum. In addition to the storerooms, this location also has the brick kilns that produced the bricks used in the DGAM’s reconstruction and restoration activities on the al-Rafiqah City Wall.
The Raqqa Museum and Heraqla Storerooms During the Conflict:
The Raqqa Museum and the Heraqla storerooms have both been heavily affected by the Syrian Civil War. Thieves targeted the Raqqa Museum’s collections early in the conflict. ISIS reportedly looted the DGAM storehouses at Heraqla in March 2013. Artifacts from this site and elsewhere were shipped to buyers in Turkey through Tal Abyad. The DGAM attempted to protect the collections by moving them to safer locations, but it was unable to secure all of its materials. The organization occasionally recovered missing artifacts, such as in 2013 when the DGAM found three boxes of antiquities from the Raqqa Museum in the town of Tabqa.
On November 25, 2014 an explosion, either from a car bomb or an airstrike, detonated near the museum, causing damage to the museum’s southern facade. On November 14, 2015 local reporting group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) reported that Russian airstrikes had struck the museum, causing undetermined damage.
The function of the building during ISIS’s occupation is unclear. The organization may have housed its Western Police Division near or in parts of the museum. ISIS reportedly planted explosives in the museum and positioned snipers in the building during the fight to recapture Raqqa. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which now controls the museum, is clearing mines and debris from the area around the building. Following the recapture of the area by the SDF, new photographs and video footage emerged that showed the museum’s poor condition.
The Current Condition of the Raqqa Museum and the Heraqla Storerooms
In early December 2017, the Authority of Tourism and Protection of Antiquities - Al Jazira Canton (ATPA) published photographs that show the condition of the building’s interior and exterior. Though largely intact, the building’s facade has been scarred by the fight for the city. Most notably, a large hole exists at street level in the eastern wall of the building and another hole is present in the roof of the building. The latter was likely caused by artillery.
The interior of the building is full of trash and other debris. The exhibition cases have been smashed open and their contents are gone. However, portions of the museum’s collection remain. These are primarily clustered in a few rooms on the second floor of the museum. The second floor also contains both of the museum’s storerooms, which were looted. The western storeroom is filled with smashed pottery and other cultural materials. At some point, a large fire burned in this room. This fire may have been the result of the artillery strike that blasted a hole into the building’s ceiling. The eastern storeroom is in better condition. Some artifacts are present, but much of its contents have been removed.
The ATPA also visited the DGAM storerooms at Heraqla. The DGAM attempted to protect their contents by burying portions of them. However, the warehouses were almost completely looted by the end of 2013. The ATPA’s inspection revealed that around 150 pieces of mosaics remain in the buildings. Many of these are exposed to the elements due to the poor condition of the buildings.
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