JEBEL ZAWIYA, Syria: Like countless other Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war, Sami was eager to escape the bombs and artillery shells falling on his village. But instead of taking his family to another country, he simply brought them underground.
For the past seven months, the family has lived in a chamber cut into the rock of the Jebel Zawiya hills, its walls etched with arabesques and alcoves.
Sami, a 32-year-old stonecutter, believes that his new home is a Roman shrine. Its design in fact suggests it may be a tomb.
Across northern Syria, rebels, soldiers and civilians are making use of the country’s wealth of ancient and medieval remains for protection.
The structures are built of thick stone that has already withstood the ravages of centuries. They are often located in strategic spots overlooking towns and roads.
Sami, who like many Syrians was reluctant to give his full name for security reasons, says cave life is hard. The worst part isn’t the lack of electricity or running water. It’s the smoke from the indoor fires.
“We go daily to the doctor for our children,” he said.
His youngest, a 2-month-old girl named Abir, has been badly afflicted with respiratory problems.
But he considers the discomfort and health risks of the cave preferable to the terror of life above ground, with forces loyal to President Bashar Assad controlling the skies. “At any moment they can strike,” he said. “I have no other option until the regime falls.”
Combatants on both sides in the civil war frequently use medieval fortifications, often the legacy of the centuries-long contest between Christian and Muslim empires for the control of this region.
In the town of Harem on the Turkish border, rebels fought a bloody battle in December to oust the regime from a hilltop fortress previously used by Byzantines, the allies of Saladin, and the Crusaders. Video shows fighters painstakingly making their way in single file up the side of the cliff to capture the citadel.
In the town of Maaret al-Numan in the plain below Jebel Zawiya, rebels have set up their headquarters in a 17th-century caravansary, now a museum. Its solid fortress-like walls seem to have withstood the nearly daily rocket and mortar bomb strikes far better than nearby modern buildings have. A stroll through the halls triggers the motion-sensitive lights, illuminating a Roman mosaic of a lion tearing the flesh of a bull.
Archaeologists have raised concerns about the damage done by the war. Fighting in the city of Aleppo has raged around a 12th century citadel, and a fire in September destroyed much of a medieval souk that is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
One young fighter in Jebel Zawiya who gave his name as Abu Mohammad said that before the war, inhabitants of this region drew little benefit from the tourism that the ruins attracted. Instead, regime security forces would shoo away anyone who came nearby. Residents rarely went closer for fear they would be accused of looting and then imprisoned and tortured, he said.
“We used to be scared to go near the monuments,” he said, pointing to the cave he and his fellow villagers use for shelter. “But now, they’re benefiting us.”