The Syro-Hittite temple of Ain Dara built in the 1 st millennium BC boasted intricate stone sculptures of lions and sphinxes, elaborately decorated walls with geometric designs, floral patterns, animals and mythical creatures, and limestone pavings that are famously imprinted with a pair of gigantic footprints. But today, the Ain Dara temple is little more than a pile of rubble after a Turkish airstrike hit the ancient site during an attack on the Kurdish-held area south of the city of Afrin sometime between January 20 and January 22.
The Syrian government has condemned the attack as a deliberate assault on the site by Turkish forces, although this is yet to be independently confirmed:
“This attack reflects the hatred and barbarism of the Turkish regime against the Syrian identity and against the past, present and future of the Syrian people,” The Syrian Ministry reported. “DGAM appeals to all concerned international organizations and all those interested in world heritage to condemn this aggression and to pressure the Turkish regime to prevent the targeting of archeological and cultural sites in Efrin, one of the richest areas in Syria.”
Most Important Monument Built by the Syro-Hittites
The Ain Dara temple is recognized as one of the most important monuments built in Syria by the Syro-Hittites or Neo-Hittites, an ancient Northwest Semitic tribal confederation who emerged in the Late Bronze Age. Following the collapse of the Hittite Empire, there was a power vacuum in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Syro-Hittite states filled this vacuum and became the dominant power in the region until their conquest by the Neo-Assyrian Empire at the end of the 8th century BC.
“The temple is an important example of Syro-Hittite religious architecture and the most extensively excavated structure of its kind in Syria,” writes The American Schools of Oriental Research’s (ASOR) Cultural Heritage Initiatives collaboration, which has been monitoring the destruction of monuments during the war in Syria. “The temple is elaborately decorated with a series of basalt orthostats with geometric and representational motifs that line its exterior and interior walls. Additionally, the thresholds of the doorways into the antecella and cella contain a unique decoration that consists of two footprints carved into the exterior threshold and a single footprint on each of the two interior thresholds.”
Magnificent Architectural Monument
The Ain Dara temple was discovered in 1955, when a colossal basalt lion was found, quite accidentally. Following this find, excavations were carried out and the magnificence of Ain Dara emerged.
Some biblical scholars have argued that the temple’s layout and decorations resemble descriptions of King Solomon’s fabled temple in scripture, and that one temple may have influenced the other. However, other historians suggest that both temples belonged to a wider cultural tradition that dominated the region during that time.
Footsteps of the Gods
The giant footprints at Ain Dara are carved into the stone floor of the temple. One pair of footprints can be found on the floor of the portico, followed by a single footprint, and another single footprint at the threshold of the main hall. The distance between the two single footprints is about 9 meters (30 feet). It is still unknown whose footprints these were meant to represent. Some scholars have suggested they are animal prints, while others have suggested they depict the footsteps of the gods. Perhaps, these footprints – measuring about a meter (3.3 feet) in length – were meant to be an iconic representation of the resident deity. These footprints may have been carved to show the presence of the resident deity as he/she entered his/her temple and approached the throne in the inner sanctum.
Reduced to Rubble
According to ASOR, many of the 3,000-year-old stone carvings were blasted into fragments. “It is likely that an attack took place in the area of the doorway between the antecella and cella, causing heavy damage to the central and southeastern portions of the building,” reports ASOR. “Many of the orthostats, which were already fragile due to decades of exposure to weathering, are now in fragments. The limestone pavings of the antecella and cella have also been badly damaged. Metal fragments, including a piece that may be a stabilizing fin from the bomb or missile used in the attack, were recovered in the area. Satellite imagery reveals that the rest of the mound was unharmed.”
Since war began in Syria in 2011, countless archaeological treasures in Syria have been obliterated by Islamic State fighters . “They toppled priceless statues at the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq. They used sledgehammers and power tools to deface giant winged-bull statues at Nineveh on the outskirts of Mosul. At Nimrud, IS detonated explosives, turning the site into a giant, brown, mushroom cloud. They used assault rifles and pickaxes to destroy invaluable carvings at Hatra; and at Palmyra in Syria they blew up the 2,000-year-old temples dedicated to the pagan gods Baal Shamin and Bel,” reported Ancient Origins in June last year.
Now Syria’s invaluable heritage has come under a new threat with Turkish forces fighting Kurdish troops near the city of Afrin. How many more historical sites will be lost to the pages of history as a result of this tragic conflict?