Syria’s Director of Antiquities Maamoun Abdulkarim is an angry man, furious at the forces pillaging and destroying the world’s cultural heritage located in Syria and Iraq and irate over the failure of the international community to put a stop to this devastation. “We are facing a war against all civilisation Assyrian, Graeco-Roman, Christian, Islamic. Our battle is civilisational and political.”
He told The Gulf Today that the world powers refused to acknowledge the threat to the ancient and Islamic heritage of Syria posed by the conflict until last June when Daesh seized Iraq’s second city, Mosul.
For three years Daesh, other insurgent groups, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, and professional “mafias” had been looting Syria’s archaeological sites and selling treasures belonging to all humanity on the black market in stolen antiquities.
“If the international community does not change, we’ll lose a large part of our cultural heritage,” Dr. Abukarim castigated the international community for failing to close frontiers to the illicit trade in antiquities and criticised governments for imposing sanctions on Syria that impact its cultural heritage. “The embargo attacks all sectors of society not only the government,” he stated. Sanctions have deprived the antiquities department of funds and led governments and institutions that used to sponsor excavations in Syria to shun the department.
If UNESCO, related cultural bodies, and archaeologists who had worked in Syria for decades had not maintained contacts, “We would have been isolated and had no support.” He reeled off a long list of bodies that supported Syria during this difficult period.
The cooperation of two regional institutions was particularly welcome: the Sharjah-based International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, ICCROM-Athar — regional conversation facility directed by Dr. Zaki Aslan and the Bahrain-hosted Arab Regional Centre — World Heritage, ARC-WH, headed by Dr. Mounir Bouchenaki.
Dr. Abdulkarim said the situation began to improve “over the past six months when Germany altered its stance and began to give us support in training and research.” Italy, France and Japan have followed suit.
A milestone for his department came on March 9th when the Syrian military handed over the 11th century Crusader fortress of Crac des Chevaliers, after munitions had been cleared and some stabilisation has begun. Seized by insurgents during 2012, the castle, the most imposing in the region, was drawn into the battle for Syria. It withstood shelling and aerial bombardment as well as storming by the army in 2014. “Our employees have returned,” Dr, Abdulkarim said proudly. The castle has been recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site, one of six in Syria.
“Sites damaged in clashes can be reconstructed,” stated Dr. Abdulkarim. “But sites that are bulldozed are gone forever.” He is deeply shaken by the levelling by Daesh of the ancient Iraqi cities of Nimrud and Hatra. “We are facing barbarians..terrorists coming from all the countries of the world.”
He mentioned several key sites in Syria that have been systematically pillaged. Among them is the 3rd century BC Hellenistic, Parthian and Roman city Dura-Eruopos which houses a well preserved synagogue and an ancient Christian chapel with paintings of Jesus thought to have been executed in 235 AD.
This site is particularly important because since its abandonment in 256-57 AD, it was not built upon, making it a unique source of information during the period when it was inhabited. Looting was conducted by the Free Syrian Army and the antiquities mafia, which is always prepared to exploit conflicts.
A second site of great importance that is being pillaged is the Semitic city of Mari (2900 BC-1959 BC), located in Deir al-Zor province, currently a battleground between Daesh and government forces. Daesh “allows excavations and takes a percentage of the profits,” Dr. Abdulkarim stated.
At Tell Sheikh Hamad in Hasakah also in the east, looters have attacked the site of the ancient Assyrian city, Dur Katlimmu (13th-6th centuries BC).
He warned, “If the international community does not change its approach there will be a disaster in the region: in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen and [further afield] in Afghanistan and Mali.”
So far Syrian provincial museums have escaped the wanton destruction wreaked by Daesh with hammers and drills at the Mosul Museum.
The antiquities department packed up and evacuated movable items. Local museums are now “99 per cent secured,” he stated. Before the crisis they “held 300,000 objects and 1,000 Ottoman manuscripts dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries.”
“After Mosul, we evacuated 13,000 objects from [the museum at] Deir al-Zor, which was under [Daesh] threat. This was very dangerous because our employees could have been killed [by Daesh] and I could have been put in prison” for risking valuable artefacts while transporting them to Damascus. The objects were taken out of vulnerable storage locations, transported to a military airbase in the embattled province, and loaded onto military aircraft carrying bodies of soldiers killed in action back to the capital.
“Our employees accompanied the items. They have all been labelled and photographed and placed in secret and secure storage in Damascus. Not at the museum,” which has been closed to the public since the war began although the museum garden, a park at the centre of the capital, remains open.
“We daily contact our colleagues in each local district. We have 2,500 working in areas under government control and in some areas held by some mixed opposition…Our employees lost homes and family members to defend our cultural heritage.” The government continues to pay the salaries of our employees.
A professor of archaeology at the Damascus University who was drafted into heading the antiquities department, Dr. Abdulkarim longs for the quiet life of academe. His children, he said, smiling, “Keep asking when I will return to the university.”
In spite of divisions between government and opposition-held areas, he insisted that Syria must be treated as a single entity.