Syrian antiquities fall prey to militants and bandits
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.”