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updated 10/15/2009 3:46:38 PM ET 2009-10-15T19:46:38

Archaeologists have discovered two Crusader-era murals depicting heaven and hell in a medieval church on 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 overlooking the Mediterranean in the eastern city of Tartous.

The murals, which measure about 8 feet high and 11.5 feet 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 burnt, 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 were important because they were 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 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.

Bassam Jamous, the country's director-general of ruins and museums, told the state-run Al-Thawra newspaper last week that the paintings could provide information about the traditions and beliefs of the Crusaders.

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 in Tartous, located some 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of the Syrian capital of Damascus, is believed to be the place where Richard the Lionheart, the former king of England, landed at the beginning of the Third Crusade, which was prompted by Saladin's capture of Jerusalem.

Syria, once a regional trade center, is home to several imposing Crusader fortresses, including the famed Krak des Chevaliers — Castle of the Knights — that Lawrence of Arabia called the best in the world.

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