The Syrian War on An Ancient Heritage

Large-scale Looting and Smuggling of Artefacts Fragmented the Symbols of Syria’s history

The Aleppo Citadel on December 25, 2006. (Photo credit: Dan via flickr)
The Aleppo Citadel on December 25, 2006. (Photo credit: Dan via flickr)

The Syrian War on An Ancient Heritage

Despite the efforts of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which is known more widely by its acronym, UNESCO and several European-funded projects aimed at protecting Syrian monuments, the years following the outbreak of the raging war in Syria has seen large-scale looting and destruction of Syrian monuments and artefacts have been smuggled abroad, appearing in more than one country in the world, including European, Asian and Arab capitals.

According to sources in The Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) in the Syrian capital, Damascus, the country has lost a lot of its heritage during the war that continues until now, due to the destruction that reached to ancient buildings and historical markets, as happened in the old city of Aleppo, which was subjected to great destruction as a result of armed confrontations there between government forces and their opposition. 

The other problem is the theft from museums after the cities in which they are located fell into the hands of multiple armed parties, such as "Al-Qaeda" and "ISIS", and others, as happened to the Museum of the city of Raqqa.

The sources revealed to Majalla that the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums continues to restore archaeological sites that were damaged during the war period, as well as archaeological artefacts that were partially damaged as a result of the armed confrontations that took place near the places where the Directorate kept these artefacts.

A specialist works on a damaged statue from Palmyra at Syria's National Museum of Damascus, Syria January 9, 2019. Picture taken January 9, 2019. (REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki)

In early October, the Directorate announced the restoration and display of the sculpture of the Ain al-Tal (Eye of the Hill) site in the National Museum of Aleppo, after a joint Syrian-Italian team from the University of Florence completed the restoration of the sculpture of the archaeological site.

“In mid-September, we finished restoring 132 artefacts, ranging from pottery to glass, all owned by Syrian museums and archaeological sites.” an employee at The Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) told Majalla.

“The restoration work included several stages; the first of which was studying the condition of each piece, secondly, the estimation of the factors of damage and obtained therefrom, and the last stage is cleaning, strengthening, gluing and coloring it if necessary”, he explained.

He continued; “The restoration process was carried out under the supervision of the Directorate of Scientific Laboratories, the Pottery and Glass Restoration Branch, a subsidiary of the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums," explaining that; “The restored artefacts date back to several historical times, and are shaped like saucers, dolls, carts and bottles.”

He also pointed out that “The processes of restoration and consolidation were carried out in accordance with precise techniques and appropriate scientific methods, so that they would not affect their authenticity after being strengthened and attached to each other by multiple materials.”

The Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) is a governmental body that is administratively subject to the authority of Damascus and is affiliated with the Ministry of Culture. It is also responsible for the protection, promotion and excavation activities of all national heritage sites in the country since its foundation in 1946.

Although the directorate continues to restore archaeological sites and artefacts, this does not prevent multiple local parties from excavating archaeological sites and then smuggling their antiquities abroad, until Syrian artefacts are publicly offered for sale on social media pages.

Majalla was not able to obtain a comment from officials in the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums about the excavations carried out by various parties in the country, but an employee of the Directorate said that; “preventing antiquities excavations and smuggling is the responsibility of the security authorities and not one of our tasks.”

On the other hand, the Government of Damascus has repeatedly called for the assistance of international and United Nations organizations for the return of artefacts illegally removed from Syrian territory to be replaced in the country's museums and cultural institutions. 

However, the Syrian authorities have only been able to recover hundreds of artefacts so far after they were confiscated by the Lebanese authorities while people were trying to bring them into Lebanon, although the number of looted artefacts since the outbreak of the Syrian war is estimated at hundreds of thousands.

More than once months ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights published reports confirming that armed opposition fighters began excavation of monuments in the city of Afrin and its archaeological hills. In addition, more than one person was detained by the Turkish authorities during their attempt to introduce Syrian artefacts into their territory earlier last year.

A Syrian archeologist holds an artifact that was transported to Damascus for safe-keeping during the Syrian Civil War. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

Last June, Damascus announced that groups branded as terrorists had dug and bulldozed several sites on the outskirts of the fortress of Al Nabi Houri in Afrin, using modern equipment provided by Ankara to the armed groups it supports in that area.

Archaeological excavations in the area of Afrin under the control of the Turkish army and Syrian groups supported by it have been ongoing since March 2018, "thoughtfully and under the supervision of Turkish intelligence," on charges by the Government of Damascus, to be later smuggled into Turkish territory and then transferred to other countries.

According to earlier statements by the Minister of Culture of the Damascus government, Lubanah Mshaweh, various antiquities were smuggled from Syria, across the borders with Turkey in the first place, and then Israel and Lebanon in the second and third places.

The Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) estimated that some 19,000 archaeological sites were vandalized and "illegally" excavated, as well as 700 archaeological sites and buildings damaged, but the UN says that some 190 historical archaeological sites classified as Syrian cultural heritage have been vandalized during the military conflict that continues to date.

In the footsteps of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums, the Civil Council of Raqqa, which is under the authority of the “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria”, restored the city's museum about two years ago, which had about 90% of its contents stolen during the fall of Raqqa under the control of opposition fighters and later ISIS.

About three years ago, UNESCO and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research issued the first book that provides a comprehensive assessment of the destruction of the World Heritage Site of the ancient city of Aleppo also during the years of armed conflict in the country. Heritage experts on both sides relied on satellite images and other materials confirming the destruction of 10 percent of the historical buildings in the city of Aleppo.

According to the book, which monitored the state of Syrian heritage after five years of armed confrontations between different military parties, about half of the buildings that were included in the evaluation of UNESCO and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research sustained moderate and enormous damage.

Moreover, the book assesses the losses suffered by about 518 archaeological sites, including the Citadel of Aleppo and the Great Umayyad Mosque. Both of the latter two sites are among the most prominent archaeological landmarks of the city, which date back to the second millennium BC.

The ancient city of Aleppo was one of six archaeological sites in Syria that were included by UNESCO in 2013 on its list of World Heritage in Danger.


Jiwan Soz is a researcher and journalist who focuses on Turkish affairs and minorities in the Middle East. He is also a member of Syndicat National des Journalistes (National Syndicate of Journalists [SNJ]).

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