There is nothing left in Syria that was not traded away or looted, and now history is being ruined in front of the world. Aleppo Castle could not survive the bombing and the monuments of Deir Ezzor have almost vanished. Umayyad Mosque is no longer a symbol of Islamic culture, and Um Al-Zinar Church can no longer tell the story of Mary who lost her belt in the streets of Homs. As it is said, we Syrians have lost our collective memory.
Shelling was the Main Reason
When the regime was shelling us, we only thought of those who were killed — we never thought of the monuments or the heritage sites like the old clay houses, the kingdom of Mary, or Afamia. But as the shelling went on, the damage grew worse. According to Sheikhmous Ali, the professor of monuments of the ancient East at Strasbourg University and the head of the Syrian Antiquities Protection association, “shelling is one of the most important causes of destruction of Syria’s monuments.” He noted other reasons, including, “the conversion of archaeological sites, like Aleppo Castle and Palmyra, into military barracks, which made them into targets of shelling, like Al-Hosen Castle. There was also the use of other sites as battlefields, as in Old Aleppo. In addition, museums were shelled, including in Alraqqa and Ma’arat Alnouman, while others were robbed due to a lack of security as in Ma’arat Alnouman and Afamia, which are still secured with [only] normal locks. Parts of the walls of the ancient museum in Homs were torn down by the Syrian Army to ease their movement, making the museum’s artifacts easy targets — and no one knows if anything was stolen.”
Another threat to the archeological sites is the use of bulldozers to dig tunnels, set up sand barriers, and to dig large holes to protect tanks or make new roads. Both the opposition and the regime do this. [Another threat to the archaeological sites] is the breaking apart of ancient rocks — sometimes by the citizens who use the smaller rocks to build rooms — as has happened in some of the forgotten places in the Idleb countryside.
Other archeologists explain that shelling and explosives are the main reason for the destruction, as in Aleppo. On the other hand, they think that illegal excavations were the main cause of destruction of the infrastructure of archeological sites like the Kingdom of Mary. Smuggling, of course, and the absence of restoration, plays a major role in the continuous loss of antiquities. The UN, in collaboration with UNESCO, issued photos recently taken by satellites that show the terrible destruction of some of the archeological sites in Syria. Fox, the German newspaper, wrote that, “humanity is about to lose thousands of years of the cultural heritage. Photo analysis showed that over 300 archeological sites were destroyed or looted, in addition to the collapse of many palaces and the destruction of several minarets. According to the UN report, about 24 sites were destroyed, 104 others were severely damaged, 84 were partially damaged and more than 77 had minor damages.”
ISIS feels proud of what they have accomplished in this field, but in war as in peace, everyone is responsible for what happens. Sheikhmous confirms that ISIS doesn’t really smuggle artifacts as much as it claims in the media, because, economically speaking, the money someone gets from smuggling these artifacts is nothing compared to what they get from the oil trade.”
Sheikhmous also confirms that ISIS savagery in dealing with the antiquities is much more dangerous than just smuggling them. During an attempt by ISIS to smuggle Assyrian statues that date all the way back to the first and second century BC, the group destroyed them. They also bombed mystical shrines. ISIS’ attitude toward antiquities is more ideological than economical.
Informed sources confirmed that the Syrian regime has no clear plan to smuggle the antiquities; in fact, it rejects such an action, exactly as the opposition does. However, a group of soldiers led by one particularly security officer digs the areas they control in order to obtain the needed antiquities. Of course, this is just one action. On the other hand, the lack of real security and protection for museums, which contain rare antiquities, is reckless behavior. In Hama Museum in 2011, one incident reported involved an Aramean God statue stolen. But it wasn’t an incident of breaking and entering — indicating that whoever did it had the keys.
Stories about the Raqqa Museum appear different. Sources confirmed that boxes were stolen while it was officially under the control of the National Directorate of Antiquities and Museums in Syria (DGAM). Other sources reported that this happened without the knowledge of DGAM.
How Is the Smuggling Done, and What are the Dangers of Excavations?
Smuggling itself requires much experience, a large network of relations, and secrecy. Middlemen play a major role, so every foreign dealer has an inside mediator who shows them the pieces. Once the deal is done, they send the pieces to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey which are considered transit countries. Then the pieces move to Europe, the Gulf, America, or even China. Other pieces move to antiquities collectors who hide them for a time in order to resell them later.
Collaboration with the neighboring countries serving as transit points is necessary to prevent smuggling. Nada Alhasan, the head of the Middle East division of the World Heritage Center, in UNESCO told Al-Hayat, “As dictated in the agreement signed in 1970 about preventing illegal antiquities trafficking, UNESCO sent its recommendations to all neighboring countries to remind them of this agreement and to encourage them to apply it. UNESCO warned them about buying unauthenticated antiquities and pieces that are not approved by the Syrian state. We had some success, like when we caught some smuggled antiquities in Lebanon and returned them to official Syrian organizations. In a similar case, Turkey mentioned finding more antiquities than what were found in Lebanon, and said it will give them back when the time is right. Interpol is registering all the reported antiquities on a private list in order to monitor them and keep if found.”
Sameer Abdul Haqq, a professor of urban planning, the general secretary of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in France, and an activist in the Preserving the Cultural Heritage in Syria and Iraq action group said, “the importance of the smuggled pieces is about knowing who has them and where did they come from. So if it wasn’t Syrian, then it is not [seen] as valuable. Antiquities need identification, and they are only identified through scientific methodology.” Abdul Haqq spoke about the importance of issuing laws against trafficking, saying “Germany issued a law to ban dealing in Syrian antiquities, and these laws will reduce trafficking. During the war in Iraq, the UN council issued a law that banned antiquities trafficking, which had positive results. The UN Council recently issued law No. 2199 to improve the protection of Syrian and Iraqi heritage under the seventh chapter of the UN charter, which is now considered the most effective international law against illegal cultural heritage trafficking.”
On the other hand, the dangers of excavation lie in the way thieves dig up and look for antiquities, lacking scientific methods and using primitive tools. Layers of these antiquities are destroyed and their value drops. Of course, this makes artifacts hard to recover when war is over, meaning that [artifacts from] many historical eras are ruined and lost forever.
There are large numbers of fake Syrian antiquities in the market today, which is actually useful, as it reduces the proportion of real pieces sold, and makes buyers skeptical.
Is there even a tiny chance of saving a small part of the Syrian heritage? And will the regime respond, being itself the main reason for this destruction? We asked these questions to Nada Alhasan who answered, “UNESCO in Beirut is responsible for Syria, and there is a unit assigned to manage a project funded by the EU in coordination with the National Directorate of Antiquities and Museums in Syria where technicians will be trained to help preserve Syrian antiquities. We work with people who are interested in preserving the Syrian antiquities, and we serve no political agenda. There are associations all around Syria that work hard to protect Syrian antiquities but our official partner in this project is DGAM.”
One of the international initiatives to protect Syrian heritage came about when a group of archeologists from different countries drew up a map of all the country’s archeological sites in order to monitor the damage. This map might be useful when this war is over.
There are about 38 museums around Syria, with many located in remote areas. DGAM has taken great efforts to move what were inside these museums to safe areas. Its work has been recognized, and its general manager received an international prize in Italy for saving Syrian cultural heritage. This organization, working in coordination with American archeologists, presents full lists showing the damaged sites in Syria and has an interactive map on its website.
Archeologists Secretly Stay in Touch
A Syrian archeologist who lives in Germany and insisted on remaining anonymous said that it took him a lot to get in touch with the guard of the ancient Mamlouk cemeteries, where he worked for a long time restoring old graves. He also said that since the war has started, he could not go back to Syria to finish what he had started. But he kept in touch with the guard and asked him to keep sending him photos of the grave to make sure it was not destroyed. He confirmed that many other archeologists who had worked in Syria are also trying to keep in touch.
It is noteworthy that prior to war, over 130 national, foreign, and joint expeditions worked in Syria to restore and explore archeological sites.