The Battle to Save Syria’s Antiquities

A Syrian rebel walks inside a burnt section of the Umayyad Mosque in the old city of Aleppo hours before the Syrian army retook control of the complex on 14 October 2012. (Photo: AFP - Tauseef Mustafa)

By: Anas Zarzar, Wissam Kanaan

Published Monday, October 29, 2012

Damascus – The walls of Maamoun Abdul-Karim’s office behind the National Museum in Damascus are covered with photographs of artifacts and sites documenting thousands of years of Syrian history.

As Director General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria, Abdul-Karim is responsible for the National Campaign to Rescue Syrian Antiquities, a difficult job before the uprising and one made nearly impossible by the civil war now raging across the country.

“The war in Syria has hit...all aspects of life, including antiquities considered the common heritage of all Syrians, regardless of their thoughts or political alliances, whether loyalists or opposition,” says Abdul-Karim.

Learning from “the lessons of the US invasion of our brother Iraq, and the organized theft of all the museums,” the directorate has now decided to launch a comprehensive media campaign to raise awareness about the necessity of protecting antiquities.

According to Abdul-Karim, the campaign will deploy across a variety of media, including mobile phone messages and roadside billboards.

Sadly, the campaign seems an almost futile gesture in the face of the devastating destruction and violence engulfing the country.

The United Nations estimates that at least 20,000 people have been killed since the crisis began. The country’s history and archeological treasures have become yet another casualty.

In late September, dramatic footage from Aleppo showed the burning of parts of the city’s ancient souk, considered a national treasure and defining landmark.

Abdul-Karim says institutions like museums, which are mostly located in larger cities, have been secured and their rarest artifacts hidden away.

“Even if the worst happens, the rare items will be kept in a safe and well-protected place,” assures Abdul-Karim, denying media reports of widespread looting.

“Since the beginning of the events, I can confirm that only two thefts have taken place. The first was of a small golden statue from the museum in Apamea [in northwest Syria], and the second of a ancient stone [tablet] from Hama. Neither are considered rare,” he says. “Homs is the area that faced the most violence and destruction so far, not one artifact was lost from its [national] museum.”

Archaeological and heritage sites such as ruins, mosques, ancient souks and historic districts of cities, however, are much more difficult to secure.

“This requires extra personnel for protection, an extra burden on the directorate,” he laments. “Syria has more than 10,000 heritage sites, museums, and archaeological digs spread throughout the various governorates and all the cities.”

The protection of such locations “is of major importance, due to increased digging and theft, especially in border areas where it is easier for smugglers to work,” he adds.

“Secret digging is prevalent – this was the case in Syria even before the crisis,” says Abdul-Karim. “It increased with the current situation and the security breakdown, making it easier for [thieves and smugglers] to move around.”

The directorate has already seen a spike in trespassing on digging sites.

“This is evidence of smuggling through the border areas,” he continues. “There were several cases where smuggling gangs were chased and some of their members apprehended, in cooperation with civil society. One case was Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib.”

But the biggest threat to Syria’s antiquities and material heritage is the ongoing military clashes between the armed opposition and the regime’s forces.

“In some regions, like Deraa and Damscus, shells and bullets hit the antique sites,” says Abdul-Karim. “Heritage buildings were also damaged in the historic cities of Idlib and Jabal al-Zawiya, which were recently added to the list of world heritage sites.”

“In Aleppo, the damage affected many heritage buildings, namely the fortress and the old souks, where armed men set fire to around 150 stores in the recent clashes,” he adds.

Rebels and opposition activists maintain the fire was caused by shelling from government forces.

Even worse, Abdul-Karim says, the explosions in the Saadallah al-Jabiri square “caused significant physical damage to the national museum building in Aleppo.”

The Grand Umayyad Mosque was also hit, but Abdul-Karim insists that media reports of extensive damage are exaggerated, adding that until now “archaeological experts have not been able to evaluate the damage in a scientific manner.”

He promises the directorate will “work quickly to fix and restore all the damage,” but warns that “the old Aleppo souks have faced the worst kind of damage” and that “It might be difficult, even impossible, to bring back or renovate.”

Abdul-Karim appears cautiously optimistic about the possibility of saving Syria’s cultural heritage from destruction, but emphasized that the fighting is preventing experts and directorate employees from reaching many sites.

“There has been no specific survey of the extent of the losses,” he explains. “Till now, no one has been able to do so. It would be impossible without a ceasefire or a complete end to the grinding war.”


The Empty Damascus Museum

At a first glance, the National Museum in Damascus, one of the city’s most famous institutions, appears to be functioning normally, with visitors milling about its gardens and sipping coffee in its cafe.

But this illusion of normalcy is just that. The museum remains closed, although the grounds are open.

A number of culturalists who spoke to Al-Akhbar mentioned the “emptying of the major Syrian museums of its valued objects, especially the Damascus national museum, and placing of all of the rescued objects in safe areas away from the threat of armed clashes.”

Although the museum halls are empty, its garden is filled with statues and artifacts, making it an oasis of tranquility in a city that has not remained unscathed by the war raging around it. The many cultural and artistic events that were previously held in the garden are sorely missed by its patrons.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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