Huge Roman Mosaic Depicting Trojan War Saved From Terrorists in Syria
Archaeologists in Syria have discovered a massive, highly-detailed mosaic dating back to the Roman era. Depicting a range of mythological figures, as well as rare panels about the Trojan War, this huge mosaic was almost sold on social media by terrorists.
The 1,600 year old mosaic was discovered in a 4th century building in the city of Al-Rastan, about 22 kilometers (13.67 miles) from Hama, the third largest city in the Homs Governorate. The building is being excavated by Syria's General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums. Measuring a whopping 120 square meters (1,300 square feet), the area surrounding the ancient mosaic was reclaimed by government forces in 2018.
#Nabu is pleased that it has participated with the DGAMs in #Syria in the endeavour to uncover a fantastic mosaic piece attributed to the Roman era in al-Rastan, Homs Governorate.
The Directorate announced the news this morning
We will publish some literature on this unique piece pic.twitter.com/dgXlAL95D2
— Nabu Museum (@nabumuseum) October 12, 2022
The art work has been described as the "rarest and the most important archaeological find” since Syria’s current conflict began 10 years ago. Dr. Humam Saad, the associate director of excavation and archaeological research at the directorate, told Associated Press the mosaic depicts Roman and Amazon warriors fighting in the Trojan War, and as such he described it as “rare on a global scale."
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The colorful stones of the Roman era mosaic were typical for the era, but the subject and size are quite rare. (Nabu Museum, Syria)
The Mass Destruction of Archaeology
In May 2015, the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) was responsible for widespread destruction of ancient monuments and sites. In 2015, National Geographic reported about the April 11 th, 2014 video that was released by ISIS on social media showing the destruction of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud, which was built in the 9th century BC by the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II. Before exploding the site with dynamite, a jihadi said on camera, “Whenever we [ISIS] take control of a piece of land, we remove the symbols of polytheism and spread monotheism in it”.
The same year, ISIS also attacked the ancient city of Palmyra, which is famous for its Roman ruins. In 2016, ISIS conquered vast swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. Smithsonian Magazine frequently reported on ISIS militants attacking priceless artifacts in museums and galleries, often “with jackhammers.” Now, all six of the country's UNESCO World Heritage Sites have been extensively damaged.
An article in Middle East Monitor explained that looting and destruction became so bad that, in 2017, an armed group listed this giant mosaic for sale on social media. However, Dr. Humam Saad, Syria's General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums, said Lebanese and Syrian businessmen reportedly purchased the property where the mosaic was located and donated it to the Syrian state.
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Dier Ez Zior city in Syria was destroyed by ISIS in 2020 (Trentinness / Adobe Stock)
The Tideline of Mythology and Reality
Each panel on the ancient mosaic is filled with colorful stones measuring about half an inch square (1.27 cm). Among its mythological content is a portrait of the Roman sea god Neptune and forty of his mistresses. Dr. Saad said the mosaic is so rare because it is also “rich in details” of the Trojan War between the Greeks and Trojans, which occurred in the 12th century BC.
Furthermore, the time-worn work of art shows the semi-legendary Amazon warriors from Greek mythology fighting alongside the people of Troy. The Amazons were the race of fierce female warriors who supposedly occupied what is today Ukraine. The mosaic features the Amazonian queen, Penthesilea, who was the daughter of Ares and Otrera and sister of Hippolyta, Antiope and Melanippe, who supported Troy in the war. Legends say Queen Penthesilea was killed by Achilles at Troy, but archaeologists debate whether this battle ever even took place. Some think the battle occurred in Hissarlik in Turkey, but so far the iconic giant wooden horse has never been identified.
The Roman-era mosaic discovered in Syria includes rich detail of the legendary Trojan War. (Nabu Museum, Syria)
A War from Memory? Or A Metaphor from Mythology?
While history books and movies tell stories of the great Greek warrior Achilles, not a shred of evidence has ever been found to suggest he was real. Some researchers think Achilles was a Greek soldier, but most historians believe the term ‘Trojan horse’ was a metaphor referring to the manipulative and deceitful strategies that led to the Greeks being invited by their enemy, the Trojans, into Troy, bringing about its downfall.
According to Museum Hack, the version of the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad most likely resulted from inspiration. He perhaps took the real historic destruction of a great city “and filled in the gaps.” The end result is a compelling and enduring story “about how you shouldn’t f**k with the gods, or indeed the sons of immortal sea nymphs, lest they kill you and raze your city”.
More Roman Mosaics to be found in Syria?
Dr. Saad has said that excavations will continue at the Roman-era mosaic site, as it is clear the mosaic extends far wider. Currently, they are still unsure what type of building originally housed the mosaic.
Sulaf Fawakherji, a famous actress in Syria and a member of the Nabu Museum's board of trustees, has said that it is clear there are more artifacts awaiting discovery. She hopes that the museum is able to purchase additional buildings in order to conserve the city’s immense cultural heritage.
Al-Rastan has a rich history going back to its founding as Arethusa in the 3rd century BC Seleucid dynasty. There is no doubt there is much more to discover and learn.
Top Image: This impressive, massive, Roman era mosaic was found in a 4th century BC building in Homs Governate, Syria. It includes rare depictions of the Trojan War. Source: Nabu Museum, Syria
By Ashley Cowie
Aji, A. October 13, 2022. 'Rare portrayal' of ancient warriors found on Roman mosaic unearthed in Syria. USA Today. Available at: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2022/10/13/roman-mosaic-rare-archeology-discovery-syria/10479890002/
Harkin, J. March 2016. The Race to Save Syria’s Archaeological Treasures. Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/race-save-syrias-archaeological-treasures-180958097/
Johnson, A. October 30, 2019. The Real Story of the Trojan War. Museum Hack. Available at: https://museumhack.com/trojan-war/
Liberatore, S. October 12, 2022. 'Rarest ever' mosaic depicting the Trojan War is found in Syria. Daily Mail. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-11307601/Archaeologists-dig-Roman-mosaic-former-rebel-stronghold-Syria.html
Syria unearths 'rarest' ancient Roman-era mosaic near Homs. October 13, 2022. Middle East Monitor. Available at: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20221013-syria-unearths-rarest-ancient-roman-era-mosaic-near-homs/
The National Museum and the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums of the Syrian Arab Republic have begun long-term cooperation in the field of protecting the world's cultural heritage. May 15, 2017. Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums of the Syrian Arab Republic. Available at: https://www.nm.cz/en/about-us/news/the-national-museum-and-the-directorate-general-of-antiquities-and-museums-of-the-syrian-arab-republic-have-begun-long-term-cooperation-in-the-field-of-protecting-the-worlds-cultural-heritage
Englund, K. n.d. The Northwest Palace at Nimrud. UCLA Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20220920015717/http://cdli.ucla.edu/projects/nimrud/index.html