Syrian antiquities fall prey to militants and bandits

Friday 08/05/2015
Jihadists at the door

Damascus - As Syria’s civil war drags on, the country’s cen­turies-old treasures are being systematically pil­laged and destroyed.
The Syrian government has com­plained of its inability to protect its monuments nationwide, especially in areas that are under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other opposition groups. Realising the potential rewards for artefacts in museums or still underground, pri­vateer looters and armed groups have set about seizing and selling Syria’s historical treasures.
“How can we protect more than 34 museums throughout Syria with about 300,000 artefacts?” asked Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of Syria’s General Directorate of An­tiquities and Museums.
Abdulkarim told The Arab Week­ly there were more than 10,000 archaeological sites in areas con­trolled by militants or armed groups in northern and central Syria.
ISIS, which has overrun most of Syria’s north east and north west, has a string of major archaeologi­cal sites in its hands. Its militants have pillaged sites, excavated oth­ers and destroyed relics and statues as part of their purge of what they see as paganism. In neighbouring Iraq, ISIS militants have destroyed some of the country’s most pre­cious cultural and historical herit­age.
Archaeologists have drawn par­allels between the assaults on the cultural history of Syria and Iraq with the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghani­stan in 2001.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UN­ESCO) condemned the destruction of sites in Iraq and Syria as “cultural cleansing”. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the actions as a “war crime”.
ISIS, which rules a self-pro­claimed caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, promotes a fiercely pur­ist interpretation of Sunni Islam, inspired from early Islamic history. The militant group rejects religious shrines of any sort and condemns adherents of the rival Shia sect and fellow Sunnis who do not follow ISIS as heretics.
Mindful of events in neighbour­ing Iraq following the collapse of the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, when museums were ran­sacked, the Syrian government and experts cautioned of the possible demise of the country’s treasures.
Damascus turned to UNESCO, urging it to protect Syrian archae­ological sites and museums. The government warned that the sites face the danger of being looted or ruined at the hands of ISIS un­der the pretext that they promote apostasy.
Abdulkarim said many archaeo­logical sites bore the fallout of rag­ing clashes in Syria, whose capital Damascus is thought to be the most ancient populated city in the world.
More than 1,000 shops were de­stroyed two years ago in the mar­kets of the Old Aleppo in northern Syria; many others were pillaged and vandalised. Several historic buildings, such as the Umayyad Mosque and the museum in Alep­po, were severely damaged.
Syrian officials said more than 140 archaeological buildings and thousands of old houses were dam­aged in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial centre. At least 14 sites in Aleppo on the World Heritage List were also hit.
“It’s a real catastrophe,” groaned Abdulkarim.
He said Aleppo’s archaeological sites bore the bulk of the destruc­tion, with lesser damage found in other historic sites in the central cities of Homs and Hama and the southern province of Daraa.
Some Christian churches and shrines in areas controlled by ISIS and other militant Islamist groups were torched. ISIS fighters de­stroyed the statues at the Assyri­an-era Tel Ajaji site, a prehistoric settlement in Syria’s far eastern Hassakeh city, according to Ab­dulkarim, who noted that dozens of other Assyrian-era statues were smashed in southern Hassakeh.
“This is related to their extremist ideological doctrine and has noth­ing to do with the clashes,” he said.
Recently, Abdulkarim’s depart­ment said in a statement that gangs have turned Idlib museum in northern Syria into a dormi­tory for their members and stole all contents of a museum in the Busra al-Sham Citadel in southern Syria.
Abdulkarim said there was a “menacing danger” on the coun­try’s cultural heritage because of the “spread of organised gangs”.
In an implicit reference to Tur­key, Abdulkarim charged that some regional countries had facilitated the entry of jihadists into Syria.
His war-torn country, once a regional trade centre, is home to several imposing crusader-era for­tresses, including the famed Krak des Chevaliers — Castle of the Knights — that Lawrence of Arabia once called the best in the world.
UNESCO has placed six Syrian sites on the World Heritage List; the old cities of Damascus and Aleppo, al-Madhiq castle, the Krak des Chevaliers, the ancient city of Bosra and the ancient site of Pal­myra as well as ancient villages in northern Syria.
The security vacuum has prompted people in some cultur­ally rich areas to form “neighbour­hood watch” programmes. Resi­dents armed with guns, sticks and clubs set up self-styled checkpoints and barricades to ward off looters from archaeological sites.
Abdulkarim voiced concern over many archaeological sites under the control of opposition groups.
He warned that a “real disaster” was happening at Apamea site in the central city of Hama and in the Dura-Europos, the 2,300-year-old city overlooking the Euphrates riv­er in Deir Ez-Zor province in north east Syria, where gangs have been digging for more than one year. The ancient city of Mari, which is on the site of Tell Hariri on the western bank of the Euphrates in Deir Ez- Zor, was also looted by ISIS.
The Syrian official’s distress was echoed by a French archaeolo­gist who lived in Damascus for 20 years. “I cannot stop crying every day. What’s happening in Syria is just awful,” she said.
The archaeologist, who asked for anonymity, said she visits Lebanon to stay close to Syria.
“It is most distressing to see the history of the world, not only of Syria, being destroyed under our eyes … It is the soul of the country which is being wiped out,” she told The Arab Weekly in Beirut. “It is more than a crime; there is no word to describe it.”

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