Among all the reports of destruction, murder and genocide occurring in Syria and Iraq during the conflict with Isis, the destruction and looting of cultural property seems to pale into insignificance. However, the damage done to ancient heritage sites is both an irreparable loss to both countries’ wealth of history, and a symptom of greater cultural intolerance by the group.
While looting has always been difficult to trace, there is very little clarity even in discerning which sites have been damaged, either in the crossfire or as an ideological statement.
Satellite images are being relied on for the status of Syria’s world heritage sites; 5 out of 6 of which are confirmed to have sustained damage since fighting first broke out in the country. Concerns for the comparatively untouched ancient city of Damascus have been mounting throughout January. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported clashes breaking out in Douma (a small city 10km to the north-east) and in the past week, rockets have been launched from Douma into the Eastern Ghouta suburb right at the eastern edge of the city.
Evidence of destruction is also visible via social media: photos and videos of the deliberate damaging of Yazidi temples (a religious minority which is predominantly ethnically Kurdish) and the destruction of the city of Mosul. Several locals of Mosul were also tweeting that Isis were threatening to bomb the walls of Nineveh (dating to 8th Century B.C.E.) They appear to have acted on these threats, as several regional news agencies reported on the 28th of January that parts of the wall have been blown up.
There have also been reports that Isis is encouraging organised looting of major archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq, and is now taxing the trade of those illicit antiquities under the principle of Al-Khums (a 20% tax that paid on items regarded as war booty). If this is the case, large-scale smuggling of those areas’ ancient artefacts can be expected.
I asked Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist working in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow, who has worked on several teams internationally that identify and repatriate illicit antiquities, about the difficulties in the repatriating looted artefacts. He stated that, “Evidence can be produced only if capable police forces [know] what they are looking for, having received the appropriate training.” In the context of such unrest and violence, any forces in the area which would guard against the looting of ancient artefacts do not have the resources to devote to it.
Archaeological artefacts seized in Palmyra region by the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museum (DGAMS). Image courtesy of DGAMS.
It does seem, however, that looting is occuring within regime and rebel territories, as well as under jihadist rule. Apamea, which is under Syrian regime control, has been pockmarked with more than 5,000 holes by looters. A report on the work of Association for the Advancement of Science published by Le Patrimoine Archéologique Syrien en Danger highlights other similar cases.
Apamea as seen on Google Earth on 20th July 2011 and 4th April 2012
If any side is profiting in the short-term from the clandestine trade of Syria and Iraq’s antiquities, it is at the expense of both countries’ cultural and religious heritage, and future tourism industries. A glance at the millions of visitors to Greece, Egypt, and until recently Israel, suggests that in peace-time, similar numbers would wish to visit the ancient sites currently in conflict zones.
When I asked Sam Hardy, archaeologist at UCL specialising in conflict antiquities, about the implications of the destruction of Syria and Iraq’s heritage, he summarised them as following: “Syria contains some of the sites from our earliest history, and many of its ancient sites and settlements embody the shared lives of mixed communities. They challenge ethnic nationalist and religious extremist narratives, so they could help society to rebuild itself as a multicultural community.”
The sad fact is that there were many other cases that could have been discussed in this article, and this is only one region where ancient sites have been damaged in the last five years. It is not just the historians and archaeologists who should despair at the wilful destruction and selling-off such a diverse range of cultural and religious heritages, but the global community as a whole. Our world view is being narrowed for us, and our windows into our collective past, shattered.