Looting and violence pose threat to Syria's ancient treasures
The 1,850m Cardo Maximus in Apamea, Syria. photograph: joe and clair carnegie/libyan soup
Protracted conflict could result in the ‘demolition’ of past, writes SULEIMAN AL-KHALIDI
Syrian museums have locked away thousands of ancient treasures to protect them from looting and violence but one of humanity’s greatest cultural heritages remains in peril, according to the archaeologist responsible for their protection.
Aleppo’s medieval covered market has already been destroyed by fires, which also ripped through the city’s Umayyad mosque. Illegal excavations have threatened tombs in the desert town of Palmyra and the Bronze Age settlement of Ebla, and Interpol is hunting a 2,700-year-old statue taken from the city of Hama.
In a country that also boasts stunning Crusader castles, Roman ruins and a history stretching back through the great empires of the Middle East to the dawn of human civilisation, the task of safeguarding that heritage from modern conflict is a daunting responsibility.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of Syria’s antiquities and museums, said it was a battle for the nation’s very existence.
“We emptied Syria’s museums. They are in effect empty halls, with the exception of large pieces that are difficult to move,” Mr Abdulkarim said during a visit to neighbouring Jordan.
Numerous Bronze Age civilisations left successive marks on Syria including Babylonians, Assyrians and Hittites. They in turn were replaced by Greeks, Sassanians, Persians, Romans and Arabs, many choosing Syrian cities for their capitals.
European Crusaders left impressive castles and the Ottoman empire also made its mark over five centuries.
Mr Abdulkarim said the most significant pieces to go missing since the start of the conflict were a gilt bronze statue from about 2,000 years ago that was stolen from Hama – and placed on Interpol’s “most wanted” list of art works – and a marble piece looted from the garden of Apamea museum.
Priceless artefacts in the northern town of Maarat al-Noman were saved when the local community ensured the museum’s famous mosaic portals were kept safe during clashes.
In Hama, local neighbourhood youths protected the museum’s Roman and Byzantine statues from looters until they were taken to safety, Mr Abdulkarim said.
“They closed the doors of the museum and were able to protect it from disaster.”
Dozens of archaeological sites have been targeted by illegal excavation and trafficking, though they account for less than 1 per cent of the 10,000 sites across the country.
The diggers concentrate mainly on sites that have long been the focus of illicit trafficking, such as the ancient city of Apamea, north of Hama, that flourished during Roman and Byzantine periods and is famous for its 1,850m (6,069ft) colonnade. “Vandalism in the city is an old phenomenon and is not related to the crisis, but the thieves who are active in this area have found greater freedom to operate,” said Mr Abdulkarim.
He appealed to the warring parties to spare the country’s Crusader castles, some of which have been converted into army barracks or rebel hideouts. Crac des Chevaliers, the supreme example of Crusader castle building, has suffered minor damage, while Aleppo citadel’s main gate has been slightly damaged along with its northern tower.
The greatest damage has been to a collection of seven old markets in Aleppo, unsurpassed in the Middle East, that were destroyed by fires that also damaged the Umayyad mosque.
In northeastern Syria, major ancient sites in Tell Mozan near Qazmishli were well protected by Kurdish groups that have taken control in the region, Mr Abdulkarim said.
Losses so far were just a fraction of Syria’s priceless collection, Mr Abdulkarim said, but he warned that protracted and escalating violence could usher in more brazen theft.
“So far the gangs and thieves are small-scale operators and no organised international gangs have surfaced,” he said.
“But what could be terrifying is that column heads and columns and large stones could be stolen . . . and smuggled out of Syria. If this happens, God forbid, then we are approaching the start of the tragic demolition of our past and future.” – (Reuters)