A mystery city lies in Syria’s deserts, one older than the pyramids -- but the war-torn area is preventing archaeologists from decoding its riddles.
Fragments of stone tools, stone circles and lines on the ground, and even evidence of tombs appear to lie in the desert near the ancient monastery of Deir Mar Musa, 50 miles north of Damascus, archaeologist Robert Mason of the Royal Ontario Museum said. He likened the formations to “Syria’s Stonehenge.”
“What it looked like was a landscape for the dead and not for the living,” Mason said Wednesday during a presentation at Harvard University’s Semitic Museum, according to the University publication the Harvard Gazette.
He made the find during a 2009 trip and is eager to return and further explore the site. But he says regional conflicts make such a return trip nearly impossible.
“It’s something that needs more work and I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen.”
'What it looked like was a landscape for the dead and not for the living.'
- Archaeologist Robert Mason
The monastery itself, also called the Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian, was built in the late 4th or early 5th century, he said, and contains several frescoes from the 11th and 12th century depicting Christian saints and Judgment Day. He told the audience at Harvard that he believes it was originally a Roman watchtower, partially destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt.
But the desert puzzle is much older.
Bits of tools Mason found nearby suggest the mystery he discovered in the desert is much older than the monastery. It may date to the Neolithic Period or early Bronze Age, 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, the Gazette said.
Egypt’s oldest pyramid, the Great Pyramid of Giza, was built about 4,500 years ago.
Mason also saw corral-like stone formations called “desert kites,” which would have been used to trap gazelles and other animals. The desert around the monastery is hardly a verdant pasture -- “very scenic, if you like rocks,” Mason reportedly said -- but was probably greener a few millennia ago, the archaeologist explained.
Like Indiana Jones exploring Italy’s museums in “The Last Crusade,” Mason hopes to return to the monastery to excavate under the church’s main altar -- he believes he’ll find an entrance to underground tombs there.
He also hopes to return to strange stone formations he found in the desert, which he dubbed “Syria’s Stonehenge.”