“Some days we are fighters; others we are archaeologists,” Jihad Abu Saoud, a 27-year-old rebel from the Syrian city of Idlib, said in an interview in this northern Jordanian city. Saoud claimed to have recently uncovered tablets from the Bronze Age city of Ebla inscribed in the Sumerian script.
Since the onset of the conflict in Syria, the international community has expressed alarm over the fate of the country’s diverse heritage
landmarks and stunning archaeological sites, as rebel and government forces have transformed historical treasures such as the 1,000-year-old
souk and the crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers into theaters of war.
As the war nears its third year, the United Nations and conservationists warn that Syria’s historical sites face a new and more dangerous threat: a sophisticated network of smugglers and dealers — prime among them members of the cash-strapped insurgency — looking to capitalize on the country’s cultural riches.
“In light of previous experiences in situations of conflict, with respect to cultural heritage, the risk of looting and illicit trafficking of Syrian cultural objects appears to be high,” said Anna Paolini, head of the Jordan office of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The extent of the trade is unknown because of difficulties accessing historical sites in the war-torn country, according to UNESCO, which hosted a regional workshop in Amman on Sunday on protecting Syrian cultural heritage from trafficking. There are conflicting reports about the fate of artifacts from Syria, long a cultural crossroads.
Twelve of the country’s 36 museums have been looted, according to the France-based Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology. In a Jan. 22 report, however, the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums said the bulk of the items have been accounted for and transferred to secure locations.
Only two pieces have been taken from display cases since the start of the conflict, the ministry reported: a bronze statue from the northwestern city of Hama dating to the Aramaic period and a collection of marble figurines and tablets from the museum at Apamea.
Yet Syrian authorities and conservationists concur on the increasing vulnerability of the country’s archaeological sites, which, according to the government report, have been subject to “several” acts of vandalism and illegal excavations.
“This isn’t just the history of Syria but the history of mankind at stake,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of the Syrian antiquities directorate. Before the conflict, he said, plunderers “were digging at night. Now they are digging in broad daylight.”