Fact and Fiction: Looting of Syrian Ruins

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A Free Syrian Army fighter aims towards Aleppo's historical citadel controlled by snipers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in this 28 November 2012 file photo. (Photo: Reuters - Saad Al-Jabri)

By: Anas Zarzar, Basel Dayoub

Published Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Damascus and Aleppo – There is a daily traffic jam at noon outside the Damascus National Museum. The building and its nine main exhibition halls are undamaged, there having been no armed clashes nearby. But the large and distinctive garden outside is unusually deserted. There is barely any movement inside what used to be one of the region’s most visited museums.

International media have reported on the looting of Syrian museums, supposedly burgled or destroyed by armed groups. A thriving market is said to have developed for stolen antiquities and artifacts in neighboring countries, especially Iraq and Jordan.

Not all these reports should be treated as reliable, according to Maamoun Abdel-Karim, director of Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM).

“There has been politically motivated hype in the international media about the condition of Syria’s antiquities,“ he told Al-Akhbar. “Its main aim is to discredit official Syrian government institutions and portray them as incapable of protecting the country’s antiquities and heritage.”

He singled out reports issued by a France-based organization, the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, which claimed that 12 of Syria’s 36 national museums had been plundered.

“There is no inkling of truth in that information,” he said. “All the collections of Syria’s museums are safe. Many rare pieces have been secured in places far from any likely attacks. All of Syria’s museums have been completely emptied of antiquities, other than fixed objects that are difficult to move, and are tightly guarded.”

Abdel-Karim conceded that there had been past thefts from museums since the start of the troubles. To the best of his knowledge, the most significant pieces stolen were a gold-covered bronze statue from the Aramean period taken from a Homs museum, and a marble item from the Afamia museum.

“I don’t know where [the French organization] got its misleading reports and information from,” he said. “There is no way that damage to or theft from Syrian museums can be covered up. Anything that is covered up or concealed will be exposed tomorrow. Syrian law and courts are very firm with regard to the issue of antiquities.”

He charged that the group’s claims were anti-regime propaganda. “Everyone now knows about this group. It is run by someone called Sheikh Mous Ali. He and his friends were sent by the DGAM to study in France, but ignored their debt to the Syrian state and refused to return to the country.”

Illicit Trade

The theft and smuggling of antiquities from Syria has attracted the attention of UNESCO, which held an international workshop in Amman last week on the protection of Syrian cultural sites.

The participants, including the Swiss government and a DGAM delegation, issued a statement calling on the UN Security Council to ensure that all antiquities stolen during the course of the current conflict are returned to Syria.

Previously, the DGAM launched a public campaign aimed at safeguarding the country’s antiquities and ancient sites. The “Syria is My Homeland” campaign sought to involve local citizens throughout the country in protecting heritage sites from theft.

“There are more than 10,000 archaeological sites and excavations throughout Syria,” Abdul-Karim explained. “It is impossible to safeguard them without the cooperation and participation of local people.”

The DGAM has also assessed the physical damage sustained by many sites during recent fighting.

Of the museums, the Aleppo National Museum has suffered the most damage, followed by the museum in Deir Ezzour.

Among the most badly damaged heritage sites is the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, which was almost completely gutted by fire. With the exception of the mosque, Abdel-Karim maintained that other ancient buildings and sites damaged in the ongoing war are capable of being repaired.

Plundered Archaeology

This leaves the country’s archaeological sites. Those near the country’s borders, where the fighting is fiercest, have been particularly vulnerable. The illegal excavation and smuggling of artifacts, which used to take place discreetly, now takes place in broad daylight.

With the escalation of violence, foreign archaeological teams left their sites and illegal digging thrived. In some cases, groups of foreign antiquities traders – many posing as journalists or analysts, according to an Aleppo-based researcher who asked not to be named – took advantage of the vacuum.

The researcher said many statues and other artifacts, including Byzantine mosaics, had been dug up and removed by these groups from Maarat al-Noman and other sites in Idlib province.

While Aleppo has become a conduit for smuggled antiquities, the DGAM’s four museums in the city – the Aleppo National Museum, the Citadel Museum, the Museum of Arab Science, and the Folkloric Arts Museum – were spared from looting.

The National Museum was damaged in a suicide bombing in nearby Saadallah al-Jaberi Square, and is guarded by members of the Popular Committees and army personnel. The Citadel Museum occupies a building within the Aleppo Citadel compound, which has been damaged by shelling.

The Folkloric Arts Museum is located in the Old City, which is mostly under the control of gunmen, but its contents – including thousands of items of vintage clothing and mother-of-pearl encrusted Aleppine furniture – have been placed in secure storage.

The Education Heritage Museum in Aleppo was robbed of its contents, including antique scientific instruments.

In contrast to the DGAM’s museums, dozens of archaeological sites in Aleppo province have been plundered, as elsewhere in the country.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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