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As a boy, Ahmed Fatima Kzzo would often travel across the desert. His father had a job in Saudi Arabia and commuted between there and Aleppo, his family’s hometown. His children often traveled with him, sitting in the back of the car.
“There was a kind of castle along the road,” recalls Kzzo. “And every time we passed by it, I’d ask my father: ‘Can you stop? I want to see it’.”
But his father never did. The ruins were most likely too insignificant to warrant a stop. One day, though, while 10-year-old Ahmed was dozing on the back seat, his father did pull over. “My father said, ‘It’s now or never’, and that’s how I ended up climbing over ruins in the middle of the desert, half asleep.”
This story tells us two important things about Ahmed Fatima Kzzo, now 37. The first is that he is no stranger to traveling. “I’ve traveled and traveled, basically my whole life,” he says. In 2008, three years before the war, he left Syria, and has since lived in Rome, Bern and Amman. And now in Zurich. But he’s only here until the summer, as that’s when his scholarship from the Zurich Center for the Study of the Ancient World (ZAZH) at the Department of Religious Studies of UZH expires.
Where will he go next? “No idea.” The Syrian researcher doesn’t sound too preoccupied about his uncertain future plans, though.
The second thing the story about the castle ruins in the desert tells us about Kzzo is that his fascination with historical sites goes way back. Asked why he decided to become an archaeologist, he responds with a laugh: “I have eight siblings. I’m the second youngest. When I joined uni, law and archaeology were the only options left.”
His answer reveals his keen sense of humor. Of course, it’s no coincidence that Kzzo went into archaeology: “I love discovering historic sites and cultures.”
Unfortunately, the past few years have given Kzzo plenty to be sad about. His hometown of Aleppo has been ravaged by three years of war. It has been years since the researcher last saw most of his family. The only family members he’s seen in the past few years are his father and his sister, once in Lebanon. Luckily, Kzzo’s parents and siblings survived the war, but several of his cousins did not.
In addition to this personal grief, Kzzo is pained by the destruction of his city. Aleppo has become a ghost town. “The city has lost its joy,” the Aleppo native says.
Designated as a Unesco World Heritage site, the historic city center with its ancient suq (marketplace), its palaces, residential streets, mosques, churches and synagogues – all lie in ruins. Ahmed Kzzo clicks through the photos on his laptop to show the extent of the destruction.
The interior facade of Shaikh Abulhuda Al-Sayyadi’s zawiya (a type of monastery) has been reduced to rubble. A snapshot of him and his friends in the Great Mosque, now a distant memory.
“It’s a disgrace that all this has been destroyed by the country’s own people,” he says. Who is responsible? “That’s a highly political question. Government forces and Islamist rebels each blame the other side.” It’s obvious, however, that the city’s tall towers and historic minarets were used by snipers at some stage.
In a perhaps ironic twist of fate, in 2007, only a few years before the war, Kzzo and other former students completed a laborious research project in the historic city center of Aleppo. The group of friends volunteered to decipher all the inscriptions that date back to the Ottoman Empire in and around Aleppo. They recorded around 7,000 inscriptions on more than 200 buildings, including mosques, schools, hammams, mausoleums and cemeteries.
“We had no money, so we had to hitchhike to the more remote places,” recalls the researcher. When asked about his motivation for taking part in this research project, he responds with a laugh: “We just wanted to get our names in the history books.”
Pictures show the young men and women tracing the inscriptions onto transparent paper – amid some daunting circumstances, for example standing on tied-together ladders or sitting atop steep roofs.
“We were young and crazy,” says Kzzo. Translating the inscriptions proved quite a challenge, since they weren’t only in Arabic, but also in Ottoman Turkish, Armenian and Syriac.
And it sometimes seemed as if the ancient Ottomans had deliberately wanted to throw off researchers. For instance, rather than a clear date, some foundations featured a line of poetry, with individual letters representing numbers. “Fortunately, the older residents knew about this. Otherwise we would never have figured it out,” says the researcher.
The group’s work was published as a three-volume book in 2010, so in a way, they did end up getting their names in the history books and preserved some of the cultural heritage for posterity.
A year later the war began, and many of the documented sites were then destroyed. Ahmed Kzzo and his friends are now thinking about setting up a new project using the many pictures they took of the sites all those years ago. “An interactive online map, for example.” Kzzo also gives talks about Aleppo and how it used to look.
During his guest stay at UZH, Kzzo is focusing on his postdoc project on scroll seals discovered in the ancient Syrian city of Ebla. These seals were used to verify important documents and could hold the key to understanding a previously unknown part of Syrian history.
The site of Ebla, just 55 kilometers southwest of current-day Aleppo, was excavated by Italian researchers some 50 years ago. “Until then, it was believed that Syria had been under Mesopotamian rule in the centuries before our time,” says the archaeologist. Thanks to the excavations, however, we now know of the independent ancient kingdom of Ebla that existed in Syria.
The seals, which date back to around 2,000 to 1,500 BC, could shed light on the political life back then. “They might also contain clues as to why Aleppo went on to become more important than other cities in Syria,” believes Kzzo.
But this project too comes with a disheartening side note. Parts of the ancient site were plundered and destroyed by fighters from the so-called Islamic State – it is believed that antiquities trafficking was one of the terrorist group’s source of funding.
Ebla saw further destruction as the Syrian Arab Army reclaimed lost territory. And the ongoing civil war in his home country means that Ahmed Kzzo has no other option but to analyze the ancient scroll seals from his computer – using photos.