So why is Isis blowing to pieces the greatest artefacts of ancient history in Syria and Iraq? The archeologist Joanne Farchakh has a unique answer to a unique crime. First, Isis sells the statues, stone faces and frescoes that international dealers demand. It takes the money, hands over the relics – and blows up the temples and buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of what has been looted. “Antiquities from Palmyra are already on sale in London,” the Lebanese-French archaeologist Ms Farchakh says. “There are Syrian and Iraqi objects taken by Isis that are already in Europe.
The great citadel of Aleppo has the grim distinction of being the world’s only ancient fortress that is back in action today as a garrison and artillery battery in the midst of war. In the ruins of arsenals, dungeons and palaces from earlier centuries, troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are wreaking destruction on enemies in the plain below, as though the Middle Ages had never ended. The slits in the walls which used to allow archers to launch their arrows at attackers are now used by Syrian government marksmen with sophisticated sniper rifles, safely taking aim at targets in the streets beneath them. Artillery rounds are regularly fired at Islamist rebel fighters from positions inside the castle grounds.
Read More: Syria’s War-Scarred Citadel of Aleppo
In September, the US secretary of state John Kerry told an audience gathered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about another disaster facing Syria, a country already gripped by catastrophic civil war. In no uncertain terms, he warned of the scourge of the looting of archaeological sites, labelling ISIL the worst offender. “The looting of Apamea and Dura-Europos, the devastation caused by fighting in the ancient Unesco heritage city of Aleppo, the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah – these appalling acts aren’t just a tragedy for the Syrian and the Iraqi people,” Kerry said. “These acts of vandalism are a tragedy for all civilised people, and the civilised world must take a stand.”
Read More: Stealing from History
One must dodge sniper bullets these days to get to the Aleppo National Museum, located on the edge of the historic center of this war-torn northern Syrian city. Inside, the place looks more like a bunker than a cultural institution housing treasures from archaeological excavations across northern and eastern Syria over the past 100 years. In the courtyard, a massive basalt stone lion from Arslan Tash — the site of an Iron Age kingdom east of Aleppo conquered by the Assyrians in the 9th century B.C. — is now almost completely covered with bags filled with sand and pebbles to protect it from mortars and rockets that often crash into the museum’s courtyard.
More than 5,000 years ago, an army from the Mesopotamian city state of Uruk marched north and destroyed a prosperous rival city, Hamoukar, using slings and clay projectiles to massacre residents before burning it to the ground. Archaeologists say the battle was perhaps the first instance of large-scale, organised warfare in human history, and it occurred in a corner of north-east Syria that, millennia later, is again soaked in blood as the country’s civil war grinds on. Besides claiming more than 120,000 lives since March 2011, the war has taken a heavy toll on Syria’s rich historical heritage.
On September 25, at an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) announced the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects to fight against illicit traffic in cultural goods. World Monuments Fund President Bonnie Burnham was one of the speakers at the event, and below is an edited version of her remarks.
Read More: Conflict and Cultural Heritage in Syria
The fight against illicit traffic in cultural goods requires the enhancement of legal instruments and the use of practical tools disseminating information, raising public awareness, and preventing illegal export. Following reports of widespread damage and looting at cultural heritage sites in Syria, ICOM decided to publish the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk with the aim to help art and heritage professionals and law enforcement officials identify Syrian objects that are protected by national and international legislations. In order to facilitate identification, the Emergency Red List illustrates the categories or types of cultural items that are most likely to be illegally bought and sold. Museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors are encouraged not to acquire such objects without having carefully and thoroughly researched their origin and all the relevant legal documentation. Due to the great diversity of objects, styles and periods, the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk is far from exhaustive. Any cultural good that could have originated from Syria should be subjected to detailed scrutiny and precautionary measures.
Besides killing more than 100,000 people, Syria’s civil war is exacting another irreparable toll as historic sites and artworks are looted or destroyed in the fighting. An emergency list of endangered artworks was released Wednesday [25 September 2013] at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The initiative stems from the International Council of Museums, in collaboration with UNESCO and the US State Department.
The minaret of Aleppo’s ancient Umayyad mosque has been destroyed, Syrian state media and activists say, with the regime and the opposition blaming each other. The mosque, in Aleppo’s UNESCO-listed Old City, has been the centre of fighting for months and had already suffered extensive damage.
Read More: Minaret of Ancient Aleppo Mosque Destroyed
To the caches of ammunition and medicines that they lug each day from this border city back into their homeland, Syrian rebels have added new tools to support their fight against President Bashar al-Assad: metal detectors and pickaxes. The rebels, struggling to finance their effort, have joined an emerging trade in illicitly acquired Syrian artifacts and antiquities, selling off the country’s past as the war for its future intensifies.
Read More: Syrian Rebels Loot Artifacts
A report by the Syrian Historical Heritage Under Threat, an international non-governmental organization, lists 12 museums throughout Syria, including the museum in Maarat al-Nu’man, that are under threat. The same report lists 24 archaeological sites, 11 centuries-old fortresses, 14 historical mosques, five ancient churches and four historical districts threatened by a combination of aerial bombings, illegal excavations, looting, vandalism, illicit trafficking of cultural property and the installation of heavy weapons.
Read More: Archaeological Heritage of Syria in Danger
Abu Khaled knows the worth of things. As a small-time smuggler living along the porous border between Syria and Lebanon, he has dabbled in antiquities as much as the cigarettes, stolen goods and weapons that make up the bulk of his trade. So when a smuggler from Syria brought him a small, alabaster statue of a seated man, he figured that the carving, most likely looted from one of Syria’s two dozen heritage museums or one of its hundreds of archaeological sites, could be worth a couple thousand dollars in Lebanon’s antiquities black market.
Read More: Syria’s Looted Past
Since the war in Syria began in March 2011, the UN estimates that 60,000 people have died. But the story does not end with this tragic human cost. The irreversible destruction of Syria’s heritage continues.
Read More: Another Casualty of Syria’s War