by Rolf Brockschmidt
In 1977 the author Rolf Brockschmidt was a student participant in an archeological survey in Northeast Syria, which was undertaken to compile information for the Tübingen Atlas of the Near East.
The expedition was led by Professor Wolfgang Röllig from the University of Tübingen. In the process, Tell Sheikh Hamad (Tall ash-Shaykh Hamad) was discovered as the important provincial capital Dur-Katlimmu, which Hartmut Kühne from the Free University, also a member of the expedition, is excavating since 1978 (since 1980 as professor). The five participants in the expedition were aware at the time that the last German archaeologist in this remote region of north-eastern Syria was Baron Max von Oppenheim when he travelled along the Khabur-river in 1929/30.
The survey as part of the expedition explored two regions. In the first half of the time we travelled from the provincial town of Hasaka in the north along the Khabur to the south, to survey important settlement mounds (talls), to collect sherds, take photographs and enter them into maps. In the second half we travelled north from Dayr az-Zawr. It was precisely the systematic mapping of the settlement mounds that von Oppenheim had not undertaken. The floodplain of the Khabur is green and fertile, but at the top of the plateau the view reaches far over a flat land, barren, dusty, with steppe-like vegetation. It was hot in August, exceptionally hot, for a month we had up to 45 degrees in the shade – and there is hardly any shade in the Jazira, as this area is called. The villages on the plateau were mostly near the river, a few mud-brick buildings, which lay like foreign bodies on the plain. Quite a few of them had a tall nearby which rose strikingly from the plain – a sign of prehistoric settlement. Every now and then, you would come across children herding sheep or women dragging huge bundles of brushwood or cattle feed on their backs – just like in Oppenheim’s time.
Whenever we came into a village in our VW bus and wanted to drag the theodolite up the tall, children and adults would come curiously to greet and marvel at us. The communication was through our constant companion, the then museum director of Dayr-az-Zawr, Assad Mahmoud.
One day we arrived in Tall Knaydij North, a small village on the settlement mound. As we got out to look around, the usual delegation came to meet us, led by a worthy elderly gentleman with a white beard. After the welcoming ritual he wanted to know who we were, what we wanted here and where we came from. Most of the villagers, when they saw our theodolite, thought we were the advance party for the dam construction – some thought we were Israeli spies, but this was the minority.
When the old man found out that we were German archaeologists, his face brightened considerably. „Yes, there was someone here once before, a long time ago, the Baron, but the name…” „Max von Oppenheim,” said Assad Mahmoud, and the old man suddenly remembered: „Yes, that was his name, and I was a donkey driver there, as a young man.”
So we could forget about the Tall Knaydij investigation. No collecting of sherds, no surveying – we were invited to his house, a larger rectangular adobe building, which had seen better days, though. Under the roof there were large neon lights all around – a sign of his modest prosperity. No one in the village had neon lights on the house.
Max von Oppenheim’s donkey guide at the time introduced himself as Shaykh Khidr al-Muslat from the Jbur tribe, and according to Bedouin custom, he now wanted to entertain us. He introduced us to his wife, who was aware of her role as the wife of a shaykh. She wore a black robe, disappeared into the house immediately after the greeting and returned soon after. In our honour she had put on all her gold jewellery, a long heavy chain with many gold pieces and coins as well as heavy bracelets. We sat down in front of the house in the shade on carpets and were given tea, cigarettes, sweets, perfume and a delicious meal that was prepared for us in a hurry – a stew of meat, aubergine, onions and leeks and flat bread. It was delicious.
The shaykh apologised for what he saw as a meagre meal – it was Ramadan and people were fasting – but had he known that we were coming, he would have had a sheep slaughtered for us. Bedouin hospitality, as Max von Oppenheim also experienced and described it. The shaykh complained a little about the times – at that time Syria was a socialist republic. He used to rule over 20 villages, now he has only this one left. But his brother, the shaykh of Tell Brak, probably got his cattle and land back and became a rich man again, thanks to his good relations with the Saudi royal family, which apparently put pressure on the government.
But he was pleased that he could now host guests from Germany who, like the Baron, had come to explore this part of Syria. Whether he told us anything more about Oppenheim and the journey he made at that time is not revealed in my diary nor in my memories.
In the afternoon we returned to Hasaka and my diary notes succinctly: „Afterwards the usual: washing sherds.”
Courtesy of the Tagesspiegel, where the article first appeared in 2011.
Published by Rolf Brockschmidt: Rolf Brockschmidt studied German and Dutch philology as well as history in Berlin and Utrecht and has worked as an editor since 1982 and as a writer for the Tagesspiegel since 2018. As an illustrator, he participated in the 1974 excavation at Kamid el Loz, Lebanon, and in the 1977 survey of the “Tübingen Atlas of the Middle East” at the Khabur, Syria.