Syria’s heritage disappears in the fog of war

Friday 17/07/2015
Artefacts smuggled from Syrian city of Palmyra before they were destroyed by ISIS fighters

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.”