DAMASCUS (AP).- Archaeologists have discovered two Crusader-era murals depicting heaven and hell in a medieval church near Syria's coast a rare find that could reveal new information about the Christian knights who battled Muslims for control of the Holy Land hundreds of years ago.
Experts are now renovating the 12th century paintings, which were discovered last year by a joint Syrian-Hungarian team excavating an old Crusader fortress on a hilltop near the Mediterranean Sea in the western province of Tartous.
The discovery was announced Saturday by Bassem Jamous, Syria's director general of antiquities and museums, who told the state-run Al-Thawra newspaper that the paintings could provide information about the traditions and beliefs of the Crusaders.
The murals, which measure about 8 feet (2.5 meters) high and 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) wide, were hanging on either side of the altar of a 12th century chapel inside the al-Marqab Citadel and had accumulated thick layers of dust and dirt, archaeologists said.
The panel depicting hell shows people being tortured inside a wheel covered with knives and others being hanged and burned, said Marwan Hassan, head of the Department of Antiquities in Tartous. The one portraying heaven includes saints surrounded by light colors.
Hassan said the Crusader murals are important because they are the first ones found in the Middle East depicting heaven and hell.
Authorities have restricted access to the paintings while archaeologists finish their excavation
"Crusaders did not stay in one place for a long time, and so it is very rare to find such paintings left behind by them," Michel Makdisi, head of excavations at Syria's Directorate General of Antiquities, told The Associated Press.
Pope Urban II ordered the First Crusade in 1095 to establish Christian control of the Holy Land. European Crusaders soon took Jerusalem, but they lost it in 1187 to the famed Muslim leader Saladin.
The al-Marqab Citadel is one of several imposing Crusader fortresses located in Syria. The country is also home to the famed Krak des Chevaliers Castle of the Knights that Lawrence of Arabia called the best in the world.
Associated Press Writers Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam reported from Beirut.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.