The Last of the Unknowns (Profile of Hungarian archaeologist Balazs Major)

As his quest for historical sites around the country continues, Hungarian archaeologist Balázs Major reflects on what makes Syria a unique archaeological treasure trove.

The Last of the Unknown

Though still at the beginning of his career, Hungarian archaeologist Balázs Major has already made quite a name for himself. With diplomas in Arabic studies, archaeology and history from the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, and numerous courses and missions in his name, Major, 32, seems to never rest. He is always busy excavating new sites, making reports, giving lectures or writing scripts for documentary films on archaeology, all while preparing for his PhD.

Major’s unwavering energy is no surprise to those who know him; both his parents are doctors fully dedicated to their profession, who taught their son the importance of hard work from an early age. “Work was their life and hobby,” Major says. “They spent most of their time curing people, even beyond the call of duty.” In addition to medicine, Major’s parents had a deep interest in history and archaeology. Together with his father, Major made several long trips to different countries, sometimes visiting more than 10 archaeological monuments a day.

Major’s first close contact with the Arab world was at the age of 11 when his parents moved to Libya for work. In spite of the political difficulties and the American embargo on Libya, Major remembers the period between 1986 and 1990 as one of the happiest times in his childhood. “My interest and love for the Arab world and civilisation stems partially from that experience,” Major says. “Besides the exotic environment and the ancient monuments, the kindness and open-heartedness of people there were a great inspiration to me.”

As a child, Major was especially attracted to the Middle Ages and the castles from that period. As he grew up, his interest focused on the 12th and 13th century, when European chivalric culture was flourishing, and a brilliant Islamic civilisation reached its apogee in the Near East. “The meeting of the two worlds, mainly in the time of the Crusades, always fascinated me,” Major says. “I was never interested in the wars themselves, but rather in how the Easterners and the European population lived together for almost two centuries.”

In order to conduct proper research on the subject, Major realised the importance of understanding both sides. “As a researcher from the 21st century, you can never hope to understand these past cultures if you are not able to read the sources they both produced.” Driven by this belief, Major not only studied modern languages such as English, colloquial Arabic, French, and German, but also Latin, classical Arabic and Syrian Aramaic.

Historical sources gave him little satisfaction though. Rather they made him long for objective archaeological confirmation. “I never really wanted to sit in a library and write a ninth book based on information in eight others,” Major says. “I was always trying to discover something tangible as well. For this, you have to be an archaeologist.” From then on, Major knew exactly where to go. “It is common knowledge that if somebody is interested in archaeology or history in general, the best place to visit is Syria.”

Although there is a high concentration of monuments from a given period in countries such as Egypt, he feels that very few countries can pride themselves on having first-class monuments from most periods of human history. Amongst these, Syria is evidently the leader, while it also possesses treasures from the Crusader, Ayyubid and Mameluke period. The many undiscovered and undocumented sites in Syria are just the cherry on the cake.

The las of the unknown

With the permission of the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), Major directed a Hungarian archaeological mission in 2000. The mission’s main activity was conducting archaeological field surveys to document already known monuments and also to detect and save as many new archaeological sites as possible. “We discovered dozens of hitherto unknown archaeological sites,” Major says. “We found medieval towers, fortified caves, chapels, mills and settlements from the Late Antiquity period (+/- 200-700 AD), among others.”

Concentrating its efforts on the interior of mountains, the mission discovered well-preserved settlements from Late Antiquity. This proved that Dead Cities existed in coastal areas as well, and that there were almost as many as in the region around Aleppo which is known for them. At the same time, ceramic evidence suggests that most of them were still inhabited in the 13th century, which means that there must have been some kind of continuity from the 3rd century to the Middle Ages.

In 2003, Major gave himself entirely to finding and documenting the medieval cave castles that are mentioned in Arabic sources as the strongholds that guarded the Orontes Valley in the north of Syria. Major’s mission identified three castles in the caves and hundreds of rock-cut chambers and graves, most of which Christian hermits constructed during the Early Middle Ages.

After seven years of joint work, the DGAM asked Major to form a Syrian-Hungarian mission for the excavation and research of Qal’at al-Marqab. “This was an honour,” Major says. “Besides being one of the largest castles in the Near East, Marqab is practically untouched and offers unique opportunities for research.” Moreover, Major sees Marqab citadel as a possible school providing training opportunities for Syrian archaeology students in the most recent research methods and modern technologies. As the rectors of the Catholic University in Hungary and Tishreen Syrian University have just concluded an agreement of cooperation during the mission, Major’s ambition can easily be attained. “There are many young, talented and devoted Syrian archaeology students who are ready to work under all circumstances,” Major says. “They are just waiting for the opportunity.”

The Last of the Unknown

Yet working in Syria is a mixed blessing as the extreme richness of the sites forms a great challenge. “I could say, with only slight exaggeration, that there is not a single square metre in Syria without archaeological remains either above or below the ground,” Major says. Meanwhile, there is an unprecedented amount of development, especially in the coastland, both in the expansion of agricultural fields and in civilian infrastructure. This threatens countless archaeological sites, most of which have not been discovered yet.

Though Major admits that preserving every single archaeological site would practically mean bringing life in Syria to a halt, he insists on the importance of finding and registering all the sites in order to choose the most important ones that should be protected at all cost. “Most of our efforts have been devoted to this cause,” Major says. “In most cases, we have been in a very tight race with the developers.”

Local people’s fear of registering archaeological sites with the government forms another problem. According to Major, many people are still uninformed about the aims of the DGAM. “They have the misconception that if there is an archaeological site on their land, it automatically means some kind of disturbance in their lives,” he says. But when it comes to foreigners, it’s a different story. Locals are more prepared to give them information on archaeological sites. “The hospitality towards a person from abroad usually makes locals overcome their fears,” Major says.

In fact, Major attributes 80 percent of the mission’s success to local populations in the countryside. “No matter how many diplomas we possess,” Major says, “the locals are the real experts in knowing the archaeological sites of a given area.” This may also be the key to Major’s personal success. His down-to-earth attitude and involvement with local families adds a lot to his work. “When after a hard day’s work we’re invited to dinner with an old man from the village who tells us ancient legends,” Major smiles, “that’s when I’m sure that I have found my real home.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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