AMMAN — Syria’s cultural and historical sites are under threat, the country’s top antiquities official warned on Sunday, calling on neighbouring states to step up efforts to curb potential trafficking of stolen Syrian artefacts.
According to Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities and Museums, dozens of archaeological sites across the country have sustained damage from fighting and looting since the outbreak of the crisis in March 2011.
“These acts are not only attacks on Syria’s heritage, they are attacks on the world’s heritage,” Abdulkarim said during a regional workshop in Amman hosted by UNESCO on cultural preservation in Syria.
HRH Princess Sumaya inaugurated the four-day regional workshop on Sunday, stressing that the protection of culture was a vital part of protecting people in crisis to provide them with invaluable resources to rebuild communities and restore links when conflicts end.
The workshop brings together representatives of customs and heritage departments from Syria and neighbouring countries, in addition to experts from Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany and the US, according to UNESCO.
Issuing a report on the status of Syrian heritage sites, the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities confirmed that several of the country’s most iconic treasures have been damaged by clashes between regime and rebel forces, including the Aleppo Citadel, the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers and the 1,000-year-old Aleppo souk.
Despite the dangers, the damage caused by clashes have been largely “limited in scope”, the report said, dismissing news of the Great Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo’s destruction as “false”.
“Unfortunately, the mosque has sustained internal and external damage, but the true extent of the damage has yet to be assessed,” Abdulkarim said.
In addition to Crusader castles and Roman forts, which are often favoured by rebels as temporary bases, historical churches have emerged as the latest cultural victim to rising violence, according to the directorate.
The decorative steeple of Um Al Zanar Church in the northern province of Homs was damaged by clashes, according to the report, which indicated that several other churches dating back hundreds of years have been placed in the crosshairs of regime and rebel fighters.
“There is a focus in the press on Crusader castles and mosques, but Syria’s churches are also becoming a victim of the conflict,” Abdulkarim told The Jordan Times.
Despite the near constant threat of missile strikes and rocket-propelled grenades, the directorate claims the greatest threat facing the country’s some 10,000 archaeological sites is looting, with officials reporting “illegal excavations” by plunderers at some 20 sites in six provinces.
According to Abdulkarim, the looting has varied in scope from small-scale “grave robbing” to the brazen bull-dozing of Byzantine mosaics in the Roman city of Apamea near Aleppo.
Refusing to blame regime supporters or rebels, Syrian antiquities authorities attribute the rise in looting to so-called “mafias” — sophisticated networks of smugglers and treasure hunters that had been operating in the country long before the outbreak of the popular revolt.
“There are certain individuals and groups that have no ties to pro- or anti-government forces that are taking advantage of the situation,” Abdulkarim said.
In a bid to learn from the Iraqi experience, when the US-led invasion precipitated mass looting of museums across the country, Damascus transferred the bulk of the priceless artefacts housed in the country’s 35 museums to “secure locations”.
Due to the lack of security in most regions, the directorate has relied heavily on local residents to ensure site protection, and has issued a strategy focusing on outreach to tribes, students and even housewives to encourage a culture of preservation.
“To ensure the protection of heritage sites, we must create a sense of ownership,” Abdulkarim said.
“We must send the message that every Syrian is the owner of this heritage and every Syrian carries the responsibility to preserve this history not only for future Syrians, but for the entire world.”
Meanwhile, Abdulkarim called on neighbouring states to step up efforts to curb potential trafficking of Syrian artefacts, noting that cooperation between Damascus and officials in bordering states has largely remained “weak”.
“Under the current conditions, Syria cannot ensure the protection of these sites alone,” Abdulkarim said.
“We call on all neighbouring states and the international community to stand with us and help us keep our history within our borders.”
Officials in neighbouring states have taken several steps in recent weeks to stem a reportedly growing influx of smuggled antiquities from Syria.
Last month, the Lebanese authorities foiled an attempt to smuggle 18 Roman mosaics from Syria, while on Saturday Jordanian police seized a horde of artefacts in Ramtha believed to have been stolen from Syria.
But if the conflict continues to intensify and the international community fails to step up its support, Syrian antiquities officials warn that a piece of human history may soon be lost “forever”.
“Should this conflict continue we may not only lose Syrian history and identity,” Abdulkarim said.
“We will lose an understanding of humanity.”