First Published: 2012-04-05


Experts sound alarm: Looters tear up Syria archeological treasures


Experts warn most vulnerable are strife-torn areas, where looters have already targeted museums, excavation sites, monuments.


Middle East Online

By Jocelyne Zablit BEIRUT

More vulnerable than ever

Syria's year-long revolt has exposed to looting and destruction the country's archaeological treasures, including the ancient city of Palmyra and the Greco-Roman ruins of Apamea, experts warn.

Most vulnerable are strife-torn areas that have fallen outside the full control of the regime where looters have already targeted museums, excavation sites and monuments, they say.

"In the past three to four months there has been a lot of looting," said Hiba al-Sakhel, director of museums in Syria.

"In Apamea, we have a video showing looters removing mosaics with drills," she said. "And in Palmyra there is a lot of looting and clandestine digging."

Sakhel said other historical sites across the country have fallen prey to looters who are taking advantage of the violence that has swept the country for more than a year to pilfer antiquities.

She said although the practice has been ongoing for years, the pace has increased as a result of the unrest, which has left many sites unprotected and inaccessible.

"Syria has not been fully searched by archaeologists so wherever you dig you make a find," Sakhel said. "I believe those doing the looting are locals drawn by profit and who care little about the importance of the country's heritage."

According to experts, thieves have already made off with items from the museum in the central city of Hama, including antique weapons and a statue dating back to Aramaic times.

Further northwest, the historical Citadel of Shayzar, overlooking the Orontes River, has been damaged while in Apamea, a Roman marble statue has been stolen from the museum and looters have been busy pillaging the sprawling site at night, the experts say.

They add that stolen pieces are probably smuggled through Lebanon and other neighbouring countries and then sold on the black market.

Videos posted on YouTube also show the Citadel of al-Madiq, in Apamea, being shelled during fighting between regime forces and rebels.

The ancient city of Ebla, located in Idlib province, site of fierce clashes between regime forces and rebels, has also been exposed to looting.

At the Krak des Chevaliers, considered a crown jewel of Crusader castles and a top tourist attraction, guards have been unable to enter the site due to it being occupied by armed men, Sakhel said.

Michel al-Maqdissi, head of archaeological excavations in Syria, said most at risk is the northern so-called Limestone Massif region that is home to hundreds of convents, monasteries and ancient churches.

"In my opinion this is the most vulnerable and exposed region right now because it is outside the direct control of the antiquities department," Maqdissi said.

The United Nations' cultural agency UNESCO last month urged members states and international bodies to safeguard Syria's rich cultural heritage and ensure it is not pilfered and sent abroad amid the violence gripping the country.

"Damage to the heritage of the country is damage to the soul of its people and its identity," director general Irina Bokova said in a statement.

Six Syrian sites -- Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra, Bosra, the Krak des Chevaliers and Saladin's Castle, the ancient villages of northern Syria -- are inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage list and many more are on the agency's tentative list.

Marc Griesheimer, head of the department of archaeology and antiquities at the French Institute of the Near East in Beirut, said Syria's archaeological sites were exceptional in that they bear witness to the evolution of mankind.

"What is fascinating in Syria is that, along with Mesopotamia, the country reflects the main advances made by humankind, ... meaning the birth of the first villages or the evolution from the state of predator to sedentism," he said.

Sakhel said authorities have started removing precious objects from museums to protect them from thieves or destruction and a plan was underway to place them at the Central Bank.

"I hope the international community will send a message to the Syrian people to tell them that it is our heritage that is at stake," she said.

"This heritage does not belong to governments or the president, it belongs to all Syrians, it belongs to humanity.

"So it must not be destroyed even if one is demanding 'freedom'."


Syrian rebels agree to leave new area outside Damascus

Family accuses Israel of killing Palestinian in Malaysia

Rouhani slams officials' 'vow of silence' in face of protests

US has 'concerns' about Turkey holding fair vote under state of emergency

Cinema makes return to Saudi Arabia

UN Security Council meets over Syria in Sweden

Turkish government rejects criticism of election campaign

Condemnation after Gaza teenager killed by Israeli soldiers

Natalie Portman says backed out of Israel prize over Netanyahu

Morocco, EU start talks on new fisheries deal

FIFA to return to Morocco to check hotels, stadiums

Turkey in shock after violent Istanbul derby

Iraq pays first war reparations to Kuwait since 2014

Fiery kites adopted as new tactic by Gaza protesters

Romanian president slams plan to move Israel embassy

Western strikes on Syria bring no change whatsoever

Trump criticises OPEC for high oil prices

Syria says rebels south of capital surrender

Market has capacity to absorb higher oil prices: Saudi minister

Putin 'ready' for Trump summit

Saudi Arabia to host first public film screening

HRW criticises Lebanon for evicting Syria refugees

Saudi says intercepted ballistic missile from Yemen

Russia mulls supplying S-300 missile systems to Syria

Bashir fires Sudan foreign minister

Washington: Assad still has 'limited' chemical capability

European MPs urge US not to scrap Iran deal

Oil price soars to highest level in years

Two more pro-Kurdish MPs stripped of Turkey seats

Oil theft 'costing Libya over $750 million annually'

Turkey's snap polls: bold gambit or checkmate for Erdogan?

Iran arrests senior official over public concert

Bahrain sentences 24 to jail, strips citizenship

UN experts urge Iran to cancel Kurd's death sentence

Moderate quake strikes near Iran nuclear power plant

Syria regime forces caught in surprise IS attack

Turkey sentences 18 to life for killing ‘hero’ coup soldier

Exxon faces setback in Iraq as oil and water mix

Libya to clamp down on fuel smuggling

Yemen to arrest colonel for overlooking African migrant rape

Erdogan sends Turkey to snap polls on June 24

Qatar joins Gulf military exercise in apparent compromise

Saudi-Russia oil alliance likely to undercut OPEC

UN in security talks with Syria on chemical probe

Riyadh says two al Qaeda militants killed in Yemen