Syria’s ancient sites under attack

Syria's most treasured antiquities have been destroyed or looted as smugglers seek to profit from the country’s destruction.

al-monitor A girl runs along an archaeological site, which displaced families are using as shelters, in the southern countryside of Idlib, Feb. 5, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.

Topics covered

syria, smuggling, museum, archaeology, antiquities

Mar 8, 2015

Syrian civilization can be described as an outdoor museum. Museums and archaeological sites are scattered all over Syrian territory. As the fire of war has reached the people and the stones, the country’s civilization, both in terms of the archaeological sites and Syria’s identity, has become a part of the war.

A source who is well informed about the protection of Syria’s heritage affairs told As-Safir that the country’s heritage has been impacted by the war. He said, “The map of the affected Syrian archaeological sites can be divided into four administrative divisions. From this division, the reports of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums are based, as well as the figures included in the directorate's recent report on the fourth quarter of 2014.”

The source estimated that nearly 104 sites have been damaged in the country's east, which includes Deir ez-Zor, Hasakah and Raqqa. In Raqqa, the museum was damaged in a blast. In Hasakah's countryside, illegal excavation and digging activities were conducted, as occurred in Tel Barde, Tel Abu Hamza and Tel Jalal. Secret excavation activities took place at the Dura-Europos site in Deir ez-Zor, yet they were halted after the archaeological layers were almost completely destroyed. In north Syria, including Aleppo and Idlib, about 39 sites have been damaged.

In the old city of Aleppo, the Suwaika market and al-Sultania mosque were damaged. Yet the damage inflicted to the antiquities in the countryside was greater, as thieves conducted excavations at the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites. They detonated explosives among the olive trees located inside the southwestern wall and have completely destroyed 20 shrines.

In the Dead Cities of Idlib, the ancient church columns at the Fasouq site were smashed and used in construction works, and the ancient monastery columns at al-Bara site were also smashed. The Harem Castle walls were damaged and excavation equipment was stolen. Most of these sites are included on the World Heritage List.

In the Homs countryside, nine archaeological sites were looted and ruined. They were also severely damaged by the excavation activities and the outbreak of battles. They include Tel Taybeh, the Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi, the archeological Byzantine cemeteries, the Western and Eastern cemeteries, al-Tawil street and the popular traditional museum.

Finally, in southern Syria, 15 damaged sites were identified in the countryside of Daraa, including the Tel Shihab Castle, Izra, Kherbe and Kawkab.

The source noted that the demolition of Syria’s antiquities is not simply the natural consequence of battles occurring in the area. There is a clear methodology aimed at tearing down a civilization. "In Aleppo, the old city was targeted," said the source. "Its old market, which is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world, was gutted by fire. Moreover, large parts of the Umayyad Mosque were ruined, and its library was looted.” The Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums has described the archaeological sites “as cultural disaster areas.”

Syrian civilization will not be brought down through the destruction of archaeological sites alone. Looting is a key part of the work of antiquities dealers during the war. The source said that armed groups are communicating with antiquities smugglers outside the country. He pointed out that the authorities managed to seize three antique artifacts that were stolen from the funerary bed in the Taibul Tomb, in addition to 10 pre-Islamic artifacts in Idlib. “Reports indicated that most of the smuggling routes are toward Turkey, where artifacts are seen and sold in Syrian-Turkish border towns to finance the armed groups’ military operations,” he said.

Thefts have escalated over the last three years as Syrian antiquities have been sent abroad, just as the people are emigrating. Artifacts were stolen from nearly 15 museums, including the looting of the gilded bronze statue of the Aramaic god from the Hama museum and a marble piece from the Apamea museum.

The source added that Western museums in Germany, Britain and the United States desire to acquire these objects and to place them in the sections for the Greek and Roman eras. It is known that many Syrian artifacts were on display in various international museums before the outbreak of the crisis, such as the Walters Art Museum in Maryland in the United States, which includes artifacts from Hama.

The source said that there are several goals behind the destruction of antiquities. “The destruction of shrines is justified from a religious perspective. The looting and selling of antiquities [is justified] to buy weapons, alongside the desire of antiquities dealers to sell the objects at auction. Moreover, Western museums have a strong desire to acquire these objects and to put them in their collections.”

He said: “We certainly cannot overlook the fundamental idea of targeting the Syrian identity. Heritage is one of the basic rules that can be built upon to have a unified identity, upon which the idea of ​​citizenship is built. By destroying the antiquities, this basis is undermined, and fear is sowed. The destruction and looting of the monasteries and churches is designed to intimidate the Christians. The displacement of Assyrians from their villages in Syria, along with the Mosul museum destruction, is a message stating that they no longer have a place there, be it in history or in the future.”

The Syrian government is trying to halt the looting, protect the archaeological sites and recover the stolen objects by activating international laws regarding the protection of heritage and antiquities in the world.

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