Interview with Gabagh Kablou

The expert on ancient Syria was forced to flee his homeland – but has been able to continue his work thanks to a German scholarship

April 25, 2019

Forced to flee Syria in 2016 after fighting erupted around his home near Damascus, Gabagh Kablou, a historian of ancient Syria and Iraq, now lives in Germany and is researching once again at Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena. He is now being supported by the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, which pays for threatened foreign academics to take up a two-year research fellowship at a German university or research institution. Named after a Jewish pathologist who had to flee Nazi Germany in 1933, the initiative has to date awarded 159 fellowships, overwhelmingly to scholars from Turkey and Syria. Before leaving Syria – to which he hopes to return – Professor Kablou taught ancient history for more than two decades at the University of Damascus.

When and where were you born?
I was born in Damascus in 1962.

How has this shaped you?
Damascus is an ancient and oriental city – it combines East and West with modern and old places. That special atmosphere, and the people of Damascus, shaped my passion for history, my thoughts and my principles.

What was your first memory of an interest in archaeology?
I was born in a city where civilisation started. One is surrounded by [memorials to] historical events and historically important persons. People in my city value knowing the history of their country. As students, we always had trips to national museums, and this aroused my interest in history.

What was it like to teach ancient history in the cradle of civilisation?
You feel right in the middle of all the historical events you are teaching – that is a great honour.

When did it become too dangerous for you to remain in Syria?
In Syria, all people are in danger, no matter what, in everyday life. But it came to the point where it was very dangerous for me just to go to work or to let my kids go to school. We lived in a house in the countryside of Damascus, and there were constantly rockets hitting our children’s school – and one time my car. The fighting near our house did not seem like it was going to end, so we fled to Damascus city. Finally, my wife and I decided to leave Syria in 2015.

How did you get to Germany with your family?
First, my wife came by plane; then, after a year, my children and I came through family reunion in 2016.

What damage has the war in Syria done to its ancient archaeological sites?
It depends on where these sites are. Certain places, for example in Idlib or al-Hasaka, were completely destroyed. In contrast, we were able to save some important places, for example on the coast. The war is unfortunately not the only danger, as lots of important places are threatened by the theft and [sale of artefacts] through black markets [to buyers] abroad. Moreover, [the danger threatens] not always just ancient archaeological sites, but also museums, which store a lot of finds – these were also partly destroyed or stolen. Very often, we could not reach them to save their artefacts.

How did Syrian archaeologists manage to get some artefacts to safety?
In some places, museums were closed, and many treasures were kept safe in special depots. The Syrian authorities also tried to cooperate with the local community to secure the rest.

Can archaeologists continue to study war-damaged sites where artefacts have been destroyed?
There are a few ways that allow us to continue to study these sites. First, we can try to restore them as far as possible and to save what we have left. Or we can use new technical methods to reconstruct these places on paper in order to continue working on them and researching.

Will it ever be possible to return looted artefacts to public museums or universities for study? Is it possible to ever buy them back?
Getting these archaeological artefacts needs international cooperation because the Syrian government alone would not be able to get them back. Also, any acts of theft must be prosecuted and punished. And it is very important that other cooperative countries that find these artefacts send them back to the respective home countries and do not use them for self-interest.

Islamic State became notorious for destroying ancient artefacts in Syria, claiming that they were idolatrous, yet also selling some to fund its campaign. What did this do for the reputation of IS among ordinary Syrians?
IS represents a very small group of people, and they have always had a bad reputation. So the Syrian people have never been a good incubator for the group – but sure, their theft [from] and destruction of ancient sites did harm their image.

At what point do you think it will be safe to return to Syria?
In the near term, the conditions in Syria will not allow me to return safely.

What are you researching now in Germany?
I am working on a project looking into the history of archaeological excavations in Syria in the 19th century, with Carola Dietze, a professor of modern history at Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena. They are supporting me with all the materials I need – I am very glad to be working with them.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com


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