The loss of Cultural Heritage due to war is simply heartbreaking and I don’t really know how to formulate my sadness, anger, frustration and despair about the damage done all over the Middle-East and in Syria in particular. I have voiced my concerns in earlier articles “Organized looting in Syria” and “The War in Syria, what will happen to its heritage”. That was resp. in August 2012 and May 2013; the situation has only deteriorated since and is still deteriorating. Syria is exceptionally rich in antiquities and cities built on sites that existed thousands of years ago, where painstaking excavations have brought to light so much unique historical evidence and yet it all seems to be blown away in the dust of war and pillage.
I was lucky enough to visit Syria before these conflicts broke out and I was stunned by the sheer number of antique sites, some going back to the dawn of our civilization, their state of conservation and the care taken in the reconstruction of their past. To name just a few of the oldest cities, there is Qatna (fourth millennium BC), Mari on the Euphrates (third millennium BC), Ebla (3rd/2nd millennium BC), Ugarit (second millennium BC), while we should not forget that the origins of Damascus, for instance, go back to the seventh millennium BC and that of Aleppo to the fifth century BC. Many of these sites have been included in the List of World Heritage Sites established by UNESCO, yet even UNESCO is helpless in this situation.
[Pictures of Aleppo from Friends of Asor, The Ancient Near East Today]
[Pictures of Dura Europos from Friends of Asor, The Ancient Near East Today]
All over the Middle-East, antiquities are stolen and most of them end up on the black market; excavations are no longer carried out systematically by qualified archaeologists but fall in hands of illegal diggers in search of a quick buck; museums are wrecked and looted. Nobody knows how to stop this pillage and nobody knows how this all will end. It is a nightmare since most archaeological sites are exposed to vandalism and trafficking of antiquities as no one is in charge of their protection. No museum or other institution has any list of the collections hidden in the country or abroad, and there is no way to draw a list of the antiquities that have been stolen.
The concerns are now that after three years of war, Syrian archaeological heritage has reached a catastrophic phase. Reports of organised plundering in Apamea, Dura Europos, and Palmyra cannot be verified but are beyond proportion. A picture has reached us of a Neo-Assyrian statue from the region of Deir Ezzor being chopped to pieces with a sledgehammer. War is not about people, war is not about our heritage, but war destroys both. To what purpose, I wonder.
The dramatic situation is not unique to Syria, but also applies to many places in Libya (see: Still hope, though scant, for Libya’s cultural heritage), Iraq and Afghanistan where archaeological sites are destroyed forever.
It is evident that the humanitarian situation in Syria is extremely distressing and beyond description but at the same time the people’s inherited identity is being threatened with total obliteration. There is no end in view for the deadly conflicts in Syria or in the rest of the Middle-East – it seems only to be spreading like oil on water. It will take nothing less than a miracle to protect Syria’s priceless archaeology and only a combined action between the land that is being looted and the lands that purchase the looted artifacts could stop this destructive process. As to the antique sites and monuments themselves, we can only hope for the best and wait for a possible restoration after the war ends – whenever that may be.
[Picture of the sledgehammer destruction is also from Friends of Asor, The Ancient Near East Today]