Syrian War

Looting Is the Greatest Threat to Our Cultural Heritage in Syria

“Looting Is the Greatest Threat to Our Cultural Heritage in Syria”

By Franklin Lamb via “Foreign Policy Journal

Can the worst patrimonial disaster since World War II be stopped?

No matter how badly this observer periodically assesses the threat to our cultural heritage as he travels across Syria, the reality always turns out to be worse.

Outside the Samoual Synagogue in the Western District of Aleppo, December 13, 2014. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

As we enter 2015, much of Syria has been reduced to apocalyptic landscapes. During the 45 months of the Syrian crisis, war destruction inflicted from all sides has created massive damage to our shared global cultural heritage that has been in the custody of the Syrian people for more than ten millennia.

Few would dispute the fact that the level of destruction of Syria’s archaeological sites has become catastrophic. Unauthorized excavations, plunder, and trafficking in stolen cultural artifacts in Syria is a serious and escalating problem and threatens the cultural heritage of us all. Due to illicit excavations, many objects have already been lost to science and society.

Today, the single greatest threat to our cultural heritage in Syria is looting. It is rampant and being done from many sources. One virulent source is Da’ish (IS) and like-minded jihadists who desecrate and destroy irreplaceable artifacts and lay siege to and loot more than 2000 archeological sites under its control in Syria and double that number in Iraq.

Jihadists in Syria are estimated to have reaped more than $20 million from looted artifacts during 2014, and they rationalize their frenzy of wonton obliteration by sighting religious obligations. Also increasingly active in looting Syria’s cultural heritage are local residents who, with no jobs, income, or tangible economic prospects, are increasingly turning to age-old plunder taking advantage of a growing cash market to feed their families.

The trade in looted Syrian cultural artifacts has become the third largest market in illegal goods worldwide. Current laws at the national and international level are woefully inadequate to prevent the illicit traffic in looted antiquities and even less, to effectuate the return of stolen antiquities to their countries of origin. In the 1960s, according to experts, it was a buyers’ market as there were few national collectors interested in Islamic art or other antiquities in Syria. But that that has now dramatically changed since the Gulf countries Qatar and Abu Dhabi started collecting, and it is also now a seller’s market.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a crossroads for trade and culture for countless centuries, has been particularly hard hit. Its vast labyrinthine souk was gutted by fire in 2012. The Citadel, a castle that dates back to 3000 BC, has also been damaged, while the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque was toppled by fighting in 2013. But hundreds of other sites have also been looted and shops selling Syrian antiquities dot the Turkey side of the border just 40 miles north of Aleppo. . . .

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“Archaeologists Train “Monuments Men” to Save Syria’s Past”

“Archaeologists Train “Monuments Men” to Save Syria’s Past”

by Andrew Curry via “National Geographic

Amid the devastation and danger of civil war, Syrian archaeologists and activists are risking their lives in the battle against looting. . . .

Photo of Free Syrian Army fighters walking with their weapons in the Umayyad mosque of Old Aleppo.

The ancient city of Dura-Europos sits on a bluff above the Tigris River a few miles from Syria’s border with Iraq, its mud-brick walls facing a bleak expanse of desert. Just a year ago the city’s precise grid of streets—laid down by Greek and Roman residents 2,000 years ago—was largely intact. Temples, houses, and a substantial Roman outpost were preserved for centuries by the desert sands.

“It stood out for its remarkable preservation,” saysSimon James, an archaeologist at the U.K.’s University of Leicester who spent years studying the site’s Roman garrison. “Until now.” (See before and after pictures of archaeological site looting.)

Satellite images of the site released by the U.S. State Department in June show a shocking picture of devastation. In the past year, as fighting continued to rage between the government of President Bashar al Assad’s troops and rebels—including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—the site has been ravaged by industrial-scale looting.

Photo of the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo in 2009.

Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque is seen here in 2009, before being damaged in the civil unrest.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRYAN DENTON, CORBIS

“It’s a lunar landscape of spoil heaps,” says James. “Obviously, the looters were bankrolled to a massive extent to do something like this.”

It may be too late to save Dura-Europos, but archaeologists and activists are scrambling to preserve what’s left of Syria’s rich history, which stretches back more than 10,000 years. The efforts are focused on training locals to save ancient monuments and museum collections in the midst of a war zone.

Organizations including the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Center, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and Heritage for Peace, a network of volunteers and activists based in Spain, have been holding workshops to train Syrian archaeologists, curators, and activists in “first aid for objects and sites,” says Emma Cunliffe, a consultant specializing in heritage protection during conflicts.  . . .”

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