From Iraq to Syria, Yemen and Libya, the region’s cultural and archaeological heritage is being wiped out amid the appalling idleness of the international community and UNESCO, archaeology experts complained.
Military bases set up in the perimeter of archaeological sites, bombardment of museums and historical monuments, illegal excavations, plundering, looting and illicit trafficking of artefacts is what Syria’s heritage has been exposed to for seven years, said Syrian archaeologist Cheikhmous Ali, founder of the Strasbourg-based Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA).
“[The Islamic State (ISIS)] was not the only armed group plundering sites in Syria,” Ali said. “All military parties active on Syrian soil are involved. The Syrian regime, the opposition groups, the US forces, the Russians, the Turks, the Iranians and their allies. They are all taking part in the destruction of Syria’s heritage.”
While temples and shrines have been dynamited by jihadists for ideological reasons, bulldozers were used by the army and opposition fighters to build roads, erect barricades and dig tunnels in sites with strategic locations.
“We have satellite images showing Syrian troops positioned inside Palmyra and bulldozers levelling the ground and digging tunnels in the ancient site area, thus removing non-excavated archaeological layers and probably burying forever part of the history of this site listed as a UNESCO World Heritage,” said Ali, whose association has been recording the plundering and destruction of historic sites and monuments in Syria since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011.
Ali said at least 30% of Syria’s archaeological sites and historic buildings have been damaged, including some destroyed, and 10,000-12,000 artefacts have been looted.
“Reports circulated in the official media claiming that 95% of Syria’s antiquities are safe are totally incorrect. We have 38 museums in Syria, many of which have been damaged and looted,” he said.
“For instance, only 2-3% of the collection in Raqqa museum remains, implying that all the antiquities discovered in the province between 1982 and 2011 have disappeared. In Idlib museum, 30% of the collection, including 17,000 cuneiform tablets discovered on the archaeological site of Ebla, a kingdom from 3000BC, were stolen. Syria’s best-known mosaics museum in Maraat Al-Naaman suffered serious damage in regime barrel bomb attacks, causing the total destruction of six mosaics. Homs museum, which was on the front line, was bombed and its doors remained open for more than a year during which some 100 antiquities were looted. Palmyra museum was openly vandalised and destroyed by [ISIS] and the gold-plated statue of an Aramean god that dates to 800BC was stolen from Hama museum in 2011 when the city was under regime control.
“Only recently we were informed that the warehouses of Aleppo museum, the most important in Syria, were inundated and all its valuable pieces are now soaking in water,” Ali said.
In addition to the plundering of museums, vandalism and illegal excavations of famous archaeological sites such as Apamea, Ebla, Palmyra, Dura-Europos continue without deterrence.
Ali said excavations are carried out in broad daylight by jobless locals and antiquities’ traffickers with the permission of the armed groups, including the regular army, in return for bribes.