heritage falls prey to war
32,000 artefacts were looted from 12,000 archaeological
sites in Iraq during the chaos that followed the US-led
invasion in 2003, and 15,000 items were also looted from
the Baghdad National Museum
Syrias extraordinary archaeological heritage has
fallen prey to the fighting ravaging the country for more
than 18 months, with destruction, theft and systematic
looting on the rise.
In a country where corruption and trafficking of
archaeological artefacts and treasures was already a
chronic problem, widespread clashes and a power vacuum in
some areas have led to an explosion of looting and
illicit excavations. It is obvious that in such
situations there is always an increase in looting,
illegal excavations and smuggling, Veronique Dauge
of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre told AFP by telephone.
Remember what happened in Iraq in 2003.
Around 32,000 artefacts were looted from 12,000
archaeological sites in Iraq during the chaos that
followed the US-led invasion in 2003, and 15,000 items
were also looted from the Baghdad National Museum. The
Syrian army has often been accused of participating in
the pillaging or tolerating such actions by civilians
often in well organised trafficking bands.
In Reyhanli, a small Turkish village near the border with
Syria, a newly arrived Syrian refugee from the famed
ancient desert town of Palmyra told AFP that the museum
there had been looted and reported large-scale theft at
the site. These are the shabiha, the Assad gangs (militiamen)
who do this, charged Abu Jabal, giving a fictitious
name. The army is there, and oversees everything.
An amateur video posted online on August 17 shows seven
or eight sculptures and busts crammed into the back of a
pick-up truck. Soldiers can be seen chatting alongside
the vehicle. We have studied what our Syrian
colleagues are saying, and it is indeed soldiers.
Everything leads us to believe that the army is stealing
antiquities in Palmyra and elsewhere, Spanish
archaeologist Rodrigo Martin told AFP.
He is the spokesman for a team of archaeologists, Syrian
and foreign, who formed the Syrian Heritage in
Danger group, whose goal is to monitor what happens
at archaeological sites, through a network of informants.
Some sites have been the scene of fighting, others
have been looted, and the military has given digging
permits to gangs in exchange for their complicity in the
conflict, Martin added. But even if we have
many contacts, it is difficult to know what is really
going on. We will discover the extent of the damage after
His organisation has also received testimonies accusing
rebel groups of resorting to smuggling in order to
finance themselves. We hear rumours, but it is very
difficult to verify these, he said.
On September 12, The Times in London published an article
in which a Lebanese antiquities dealer said insurgents
had assembled groups of clandestine diggers to recover
antiquities to finance their uprising against President
Bashar al-Assad. The rebels need arms and the
antiquities are a good way to buy them, Abu Khaled
was quoted as saying in the article.
In a report entitled The Syrian archaeological
heritage is in danger, the EU-funded Euromed
Heritage organisation emphasises the danger currently
posed to Syrias rich heritage by secret excavations.
Clandestine excavations have posed a threat to
Syrian history and heritage for many years. Unfortunately,
current events have significantly increased this risk.
Many groups have attempted to conduct secret excavations,
starting with the security forces, the report said.
The clandestine excavations have become objects of
negotiation: they are tolerated by the authorities to
anyone who agrees to stay away from the uprising or
For British archaeologist Emma Cunliffe, another
specialist on Syria, what happened in 2003 in Iraq is now
being repeated. Look at the prices of nice
antiquities at auction at Christies or Sothebys:
its ridiculous! As long as there is this kind of
demand on the international market, the looting will