Syria’s heritage disappears in the fog of war
With its civil war grinding into a fifth year, Syria’s archaeological heritage is an increasingly high-profile victim of a shattered economy that allows some to profit from war. Precise figures are hard to come by but, activists claim, many people are cashing in.
The Islamic State (ISIS) is the armed faction most visibly exploiting the propaganda and material value of Syria’s heritage. After the ancient city of Palmyra fell to the group in May, ISIS decked out its Roman amphitheatre, once the site of cultural events, with its black flag and used it to stage and film the execution of regime soldiers.
Many fear ISIS will destroy Palmyra’s historical sites, as the group did in Nimrud in Iraq. But this seems unlikely as there does appear to be method in the madness. ISIS used religious arguments to justify its destruction of Nimrud. King Nimrod had declared himself a god and, according to Islamic scholars cited by the terrorist group, refused the invitation of the Prophet Abraham to worship God alone. As such, claims ISIS, the destruction of Nimrud was a religious obligation to enforce the principle of Tawheed, the monotheistic unity of God.
According to a source in Palmyra ISIS has destroyed only statues that its members say may be worshipped, in keeping with the group’s extreme interpretation of Islam. This includes the 2,000-year-old Lion of Al-Lat statue, which the source says was destroyed. But ISIS has yet to release images of the destruction as it had previously done. Palmyra’s ruins have been left unguarded by the militants but locals remain too fearful to photograph the purported destruction.
Aside from high-profile acts of destruction, the fate of Palmyra’s heritage is unclear. The Arab Weekly’s source confirmed that artefacts remaining in Palmyra’s museum were transferred by militants to an unknown location. Jaber Baker, spokesman for the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, which tracks looting and damage of Syria’s archaeological heritage, says much of it probably ends up for sale in Turkey.
“According to the latest information to reach me from Palmyra, large amounts of artefacts have been moved in the direction of Raqqa,” Baker said, “and from there across the Turkish border via middlemen and large smuggling networks.”
ISIS militants are not the only ones cashing in, says Baker. The fate of artefacts supposedly rescued by the Assad regime before the fall of cities to ISIS or other opposition factions is largely unknown. This includes the majority of the artefacts from Palmyra’s museum.
“In every area that has changed hands from the regime to the opposition or extremist organisations like ISIS it is a fact that nobody knows where the artefacts have gone,” said Baker.
“The Ministry of Antiquities has only given abstruse statements that the artefacts of the museums in Idlib and Palmyra have been transferred to a safe place, [but] the fate of these artefacts is completely unknown.”
What is known is that the number of Syrian antiquities for sale in Turkey and Lebanon is on the rise. Artefacts found on the market in Turkey, claims Baker, had been looted by either ISIS or rebel factions, while the Lebanese market is supplied by members of the Assad regime.
“All of the Lebanese border crossings are under the control of the regime,” said Baker. “I hold the regime responsible for neglect and sometimes participation in one form or another, as we are talking about large artefacts. Mosaics confiscated in Beirut were large.
The smallest one was 1 square metre.”
The sale of Syria’s heritage to the highest bidder has historical precedent for Syria’s Ba’athist regime. During the rule of Hafez Assad, senior regime figures amassed large fortunes from the sale of antiquities. The old smuggling networks work with both the regime and opposition, depending on their area of operation, and have been supplemented by new networks, says Baker.
“I sent someone to Syria posing as a trader in antiquities,” he said. “He took many photographs claiming that he would show them to customers in the West. A lot of the pictures are of counterfeit artefacts… but there were pictures of complete mosaics still in the ground being excavated. The operation was being overseen by an emir in Jabhat al-Nusra. He considered it a kind of business and did not care who he sold to as long as he got the highest price.”