Looting has become the greatest threat to our cultural heritage in Syria
Kalat al-Numan citadel, Idlib province Syria
Can the worst patrimonial disaster since World War II be stopped?
During the 45 months of the Syrian crisis, war damage inflicted from all sides has created massive damage to our shared global cultural heritage that has been in the custody of the Syrian people for more than ten millennia.
Few would dispute the fact that the level of destruction of Syria's archaeological sites has become catastrophic. Unauthorized excavations plunder and the traffic in cultural goods in Syria is a serious and escalating problem and threatens the cultural heritage of us all. Due to illicit excavations, many objects have already been lost to science and society.
Today, the single greatest threat to our cultural heritage in Syria is looting. It is rampant and being done from many sources. One virulent source is Da'ish (IS) and like-minded jihadists who desecrate and destroy irreplaceable artifacts and lay siege to and loot more than 2000 archeological sites under its control in Syria and double that number in Iraq. Jihadists in Syria are estimated to have reaped more than $ 20 million from looted artifacts during 2014 and they rationalize their frenzy of wonton obliteration by sighting religious obligations. Also increasingly active in looting Syria's cultural heritage are local residents who, with no jobs, income or tangible economic prospects, are increasingly turning to age-old plunder taking advantage of a growing cash market.
The trade in looted Syrian cultural artifacts has become the third largest market in illegal goods worldwide. Current laws at the national and international level are woefully inadequate to prevent the illicit traffic in looted antiquities and even less, effectuate the return of stolen antiquities to their countries of origin. In the 1960s, according to experts, it was a buyers' market as there were few national collectors interested in Islamic art or other antiquities in Syria. But that that has now dramatically changed since the Gulf countries, Qatar and Abu Dhabi started collecting, it is also a seller's market.
Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a crossroads for trade, and culture for countless centuries, has been particularly hard hit. Its vast labyrinthine souk was gutted by fire in 2012. The Citadel, a castle that dates back to 3000BC, has also been damaged, while the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque was toppled by fighting in 2013. But hundreds of other sites have also been looted and shops selling Syrian antiquities dot the Turkey side of the border just w0 miles form Aleppo.
"Syria is the worst-case scenario. It is the worst situation I've ever seen. Satellite imagery shows massive, mechanical looting of sites," says France Desmarais of the International Council of Museums. Palmyra, another ancient settlement founded around 2000BC, has also been partially stripped by illegal excavations and plunder. What is true with respeoct to looting in Syria obtains also in Iraq and Libya.
Last month Syrian authorities confiscated three busts from Palmyra (Tadmor) dating from 200AD that had been hacked off a tomb. But looting and illegal trade in antiquities has been escalating over the past nine months with large numbers of antiquities of dubious provenance being found on the rapidly growing illicit antiquities market. A majority of looted artifacts from Syria are being held in antiquity investment storage pits and other stash-sites for future sale at higher prices once the buyers' market glut of cultural heritage artifacts dissipates.
One of the main problems with combatting looting is that many looted artifacts end up in someone's house -- as a status symbol. Eyewitness accounts report that reliefs and mosaics looted from archaeological sites in Syria being built into walls above fireplaces in homes in the region and no doubt also in the west. Those to whom these cultural heritage artifacts belongs will never see them again given that the main market for looted antiquities has moved from Europe and the United States to Asia, particularly China, where a ravenous appetite for archaeological artifacts continues to spread.
Looting also threatens to deprive Syria of one of its best opportunities for a post-conflict economic boom based on tourism, which, until the conflict started 18 months ago, contributed 12% to the national income. Partly for this reason it is not surprising that looting carries a fifteen-year prison sentence in Syria. With no end in sight for a regional conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 the prospect for ending looting of Syria's cultural heritage must be viewed as pretty bleak. Once a site is looted it is largely destroyed it as an archaeological site. The knowledge sought and uncovered that comes with how, with what, and where an object was found, is lost, probably forever.
As documented by a just released assessment of Syria's Tentative World Heritage sites using high-resolution satellite imagery, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project documents the growing problem in remarkable detail Dura Europos, Ebla, Hama's Waterwheels, Mari, Raqqa, and Ugarit. The soon to be released second part of the assessment will present the projects finding and analysis regarding Apamea, the Island of Arwad, Maaloula, Qasr al-Hayr ach-Charqi, Sites of the Euphrates Valley, and Tartus (Tripoli).
American experts have claimed this past week that there has been a 150% percent increase in American imports of Syrian cultural property between 2011 and 2013. An investigative report by the German broadcaster NDR documented evidence that Syrian antiquities looted by terrorist groups were being sold through German auction houses. The report revealed how Syrian conflict antiquities were smuggled as handicrafts, laundered with obscuring or outright false documentation, and then sold on the open market. It also exposed the transfer of antiquities to Gulf States, where they were falsely "re-documented" for resale in Western Markets.