Thursday, October 15, 2009

Archaeologists find rare Crusader-era murals in Syria

Archaeologists have discovered two Crusader-era murals depicting heaven and hell in a medieval church near Syria's coast — a rare find that could reveal new information about the Christian knights who battled Muslims for control of the Holy Land hundreds of years ago.

Experts are now renovating the 12th century paintings, which were discovered last year by a joint Syrian-Hungarian team excavating an old Crusader fortress on a hilltop near the Mediterranean Sea in the western province of Tartous.

The discovery was announced Saturday by Bassem Jamous, Syria's director general of antiquities and museums, who told the state-run Al-Thawra newspaper that the paintings could provide information about the traditions and beliefs of the Crusaders.

The murals, which measure about 8 feet (2.5 meters) high and 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) wide, were hanging on either side of the altar of a 12th century chapel inside the al-Marqab Citadel and had accumulated thick layers of dust and dirt, archaeologists said.

The panel depicting hell shows people being tortured inside a wheel covered with knives and others being hanged and burned, said Marwan Hassan, head of the Department of Antiquities in Tartous. The one portraying heaven includes saints surrounded by light colors.

Hassan said the Crusader murals are important because they are the first ones found in the Middle East depicting heaven and hell.

Authorities have restricted access to the paintings while archaeologists finish their excavation

"Crusaders did not stay in one place for a long time, and so it is very rare to find such paintings left behind by them," Michel Makdisi, head of excavations at Syria's Directorate General of Antiquities, told The Associated Press.

al-Marqab Citadel located only six kilometres from Banias, this magnificent castle sits on the side of an extinct volcano, over watching the sea. Called Qalaat Al Marqab in Arabic it means Castle of the watchtower. This is where Richard the Lionheart landed at the beginning of the third crusade.

Founded in 1062 by the Muslim Arabs it was then taken over by the Byzantines then somehow passed into the hands of the principality of Antioch at an unknown date. It was then sold to the Hospitallers in 1186 and was rebuilt to the latest Frankish military standards of architecture and used by the crusaders until it fell into the hands of Sultan Qalaun in 1285, after only 5 weeks of battle.

The most important aspects and features of this fortress, are the keep and the chapel. The round keep is a massive tower of strength, and at a diameter of nearly 29 meters and walls of 5 meters thick it is quite typical of 12th century Hospitallers work. From the top magnificent views of the mountains and the coast can be seen, not to mention the beautiful view of the Mediterranean.

As for the chapel, it is entered by two entrances one from the north and the other from the west (up some steps). This chapel, also built in the 12th century is a magnificent example of Gothic art, with traces of Romanesque. Although this chapel is relatively small the fact that there are no aisles makes it quite spacious, this is typical of Gothic art. There are three pointed arches, one decorated in black and white, one undecorated but supported with Corinthian capitalized columns. The rounded apse is two steps higher than the rest of the chapel, and there are two small rooms behind it. The chapel is beautiful in its simplicity.