Priceless Ancient Seed Bank Saved from Destruction in Syria
An amazing collection of ancient seeds, some up to 10,000 years old, was saved from harm and destruction in Syria after a group of scientists in Aleppo managed to smuggle their valuable stockpile out of the country. Syria is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and some of the seed varieties date back to the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent.
Researchers Smuggled an Astonishing 140,000 Seed Packets Out of Syria
Since 2012, scientists from The International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) have been working to protect their seed bank. When civil war erupted in Syria, Ahmed Amri, the director of genetic resources at ICARDA, immediately thought about the thousands of packets of seeds sitting in cold storage 19 miles south of Aleppo. ICARDA is one of the eleven international genebanks charged with protecting the world’s most vital crops and their wild relatives. Each center has a specialty, and this one focuses on preserving and protecting crops from dry regions, mostly in developing countries.
These packets included ancient varieties of wheat and durum dating back nearly to the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, which evolved as early as 8,000 BC, and one of the world’s largest collections of lentil, barley, and faba bean varieties that for many years have been feeding hundreds of millions of people around the world. If these seeds had been destroyed, our planet would have lost an extremely valuable genetic resource developed over hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of years.
Growing seeds in the ICARDA genebank. Tel Hadya, Syria (ICARDA / Syria)
“Archaeological findings have shown that some 10,000 years ago barley, wheat, lentil, pea, flax, and vetch were all domesticated here,” reports the ICARDA website. “Wheat and barley, together with domesticated sheep and goats, formed the basis of farming systems which evolved around 7000 BC and then spread quickly as a Neolithic agriculture system to other parts of West Asia, the Nile Valley, and the Balkans. By 4000 BC, this wheat-and-barley farming method provided food for people living all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian subcontinent and from Scandinavia to the Nile Valley.”
A Priceless Genebank
The Center’s “heart” is its genebank, where its samples are identified and stored for future use, either by the center’s scientists or plant breeders around the world. The researchers acted effectively and managed to get 140,000 seed packets out of the country – about 87% of the bank’s collection. Dr. Mahmoud Solh, Director General of ICARDA said as Inhabitat reports, “The center was occupied unfortunately by armed forces, but some of them are farmers and they had received seeds from us. They understood the value of the center and they know we are apolitical and have nothing to do with the government.” This way the Syrian team of researchers managed to safely transfer the seeds from the center to Lebanon and Turkey with the help of the American University in Lebanon and the director general of agricultural research in Turkey.
ICARDA genebank at Tel Hadya, Syria. Credit: ICARDA
ICARDA’s New Seed Bank Won’t be in Syria Anymore
While it is a wonderful outcome that the seeds were saved from the ICARDA center in Aleppo, it is a sad reality that the seed bank will never return to the war-torn country and that is a great loss from a cultural and historical point of view, especially if one takes into consideration how humanity’s very first farms were founded in the land that is now Syria.
Top image: A rebel fighter in Aleppo’s Al-Ezaa neighborhood. Credit: Hosom Katan