The well-publicized destruction of archaeological sites and museum exhibits by ISIS has garnered worldwide condemnation. Sites like Nineveh, Hatra, and Mosul have been the subject of concerted efforts to destroy the past—and to help goad the United States into a third ground war in northern Iraq and Syria. Recently, we received some good news. It turns out that almost all the objects in Syria’s museums have been hidden away.* So perhaps things aren’t quite as bad as they appear?
Alas, the situation on the ground is even worse than you think. Destruction of archaeological sites has been an ongoing feature in virtually all the modern wars in the Middle East. Because of the way archaeological sites are used in military operations, there’s plenty of blame to spread around. And you’ve only been told about the famous sites—the ones that are mentioned in the Bible or that have long records of archaeological excavation and publication. But even on these sites, you haven’t heard the whole story.
Between July 2011 and April 2012, satellite imagery (above) shows that the site was extensively looted. Media reports concentrated on the looting and subsequent sale of artifacts from the site, which benefitted the Assad regime. But the looting is only part of the story. The satellite images shown here illustrate what’s been happening in a broader context and link the environs of the site into the larger story of the Syrian Civil War. At the time the looting of Apamea occurred, the town of Qal’at al-Mudiq was being contested between Syrian government and rebel forces. During the 2011–2012 period, the citadel and Tell Jifar were occupied by the Syrian army, but the rest of the lower town was in the hands of rebel groups.
The three sites were central to the battle for the town. AFP reported on March 28, 2012:
On the ground, Syrian forces backed by tanks attacked the central town of Qalaat al-Madiq and other areas on Wednesday, sparking clashes which cost at least 21 lives, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. … The monitoring group said four civilians were killed in shelling, while five rebel fighters and four soldiers died in fierce clashes in Qalaat al-Madiq and surrounding villages. It said troops entered the town of Qalaat al-Madiq, in Hama Province, just after dawn following a 17-day barrage of shelling and heavy gunfire to root out rebels. The army, however, was not in full control of the town.
So what happened? The Syrian army dug tanks into the top of Tell Jifar, which can be seen in the close-up satellite image. And it used its strategic vantage point in the citadel to call down indirect fire on the lower town.
The Syrians, the Lebanese, the Palestinians, ISIS, everybody who fights in the Middle East uses archaeological sites this way because they are often located on prominent hilltops that offer commanding views of the countryside. Palestinian fighters, Hezbollah, and rebel groups in Syria occupied crusader castles, such as Beaufort in Lebanon and Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, and these ancient fortresses have been subjected to repeated air attacks. Beaufort has been all but destroyed.
Bashar al-Assad’s army has constructed numerous surface-to-air missile sites on prominent archaeological tell sites in western Syria, where I’ve been looking at sites. They are easy to spot. The Syrians purchased enormous amounts of military hardware from the former Soviet Union, including surface-to-air missile systems. Soviet military manuals, describing how such places were to be constructed, came with the hardware. Such sites can be recognized in Digital Globe/Google Earth imagery because they feature a tell-tale footprint of six firing positions with a central control position. In the picture below, you can clearly see that a small archaeological site in the northeast corner of the frame has been expanded into an even larger defense facility. I’ve counted at least two dozen like this one in Lebanon and Syria.
Another example is this small Bronze Age (roughly 3500 to 1200 B.C.) site, about which little is currently known. It has been turned into a military strongpoint, complete with concrete bunkers along the curved earthen berm on the northwest side, zigzag trenches, and numerous positions for fighting vehicles. The long trucks in the center of the site possibly haul missile reloads.
A third example is the tell site with Early and Middle Bronze Age, Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine remains shown below. The entire hill on which the site is situated has been turned into a surface-to-air missile battery and military camp. The SAM site is easily visible on top of the hill, and there are numerous trenches dug into the sides of the hill for armored vehicle revetments and storage/hiding of SAM reloads. There are several structures that appear to be bunkers, with sloping, concrete-lined ramps going into and out of them, and there are numerous military trucks on the site. The edge of the site is bermed with a raised, earthen barrier to create firing positions for infantry. It’s a prime military target, and I would be surprised indeed if it’s still intact.
Let’s not deceive ourselves. Modern warfare in this ancient land means that archaeological sites will be used for military purposes and destroyed by air attacks because they have become legitimate military targets. So if you thought ISIS was the only perpetrator of archaeological site destruction, think again.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.
*Correction, April 2, 2015: This article originally misstated that many of the objects destroyed by ISIS in the Mosul Museum in Iraq were reproductions. Most of them were original. This sentence has been updated to reflect that most of the artifacts in museums in Syria, where ISIS is also threatening antiquities, have been hidden away
Auther: Stephen H. Savage works for Arizona State’s Institute for Humanities Research. He specializes in remote sensing & archaeology. His Ph.D. is in anthropology.
By: Stephen H. Savage