Syrian Conflict Exposes Archeological Sites to Theft and Destruction
John O'Melveny Woods | Aug 8, 2014
Title: Editor
Topic category: Ancient Cities/Sites
Unexplained Archeology

Umayyad Mosque

As tragic as the human toll has been in the conflict in Syria, it is also taking a huge toll on archeological sites throughout the country. Syria is a bastion of important ancient historical sites; six of which appear on UNESCO's World Heritage Sites list. In addition, hundreds of Syrian monuments are on UNESCO's Tentative List. Shocking images of destruction, such as the bombing of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo or the ghost city of Homs, have been carried by the world's media. There has been an international outcry at a perceived lack of UNESCO action, but UNESCO claims they are helpless to do anything about it.

They may be right.

According to the New York Times, when the fighting began in 2011 there were at least seventy-eight archaeological teams working in the country. Presently there none.

In the beginning of the conflict, the rebels were mostly Syrians. They seemed to be more careful about disturbing or destroying historical sites that were also part of their heritage. However, that quickly changed. Foreign fighters soon arrived, and with them criminals, who took a more ruthless approach to the sites. By early 2012, they were working with mechanized digging equipment and jackhammers and had a seemingly clear idea of what they wanted, according to residents. They set up armed guards as lookouts while the illegal excavators went to work.

Recent reports, which have been hard to independently confirm, have reported that ISIS most recently destroyed the alleged tomb of the Biblical prophet Jonah.

These historical sites are being used to generate money for their cause. According to new information released by The Guardian, trafficking “conflict antiquities,” or artifacts that were looted, smuggled, and sold to illicit dealers, has been the source of tens of millions for ISIS. They even stole $36 million worth of artifacts from one site in Syria alone.

According to Wikipedia, There are twenty-five cultural heritage museums dispersed around Syria, many with artifacts stored outside. It has been reported that Homs museum has been looted and that only the museums and monuments of Syria’s capital, Damascus, are safe from looting and destruction from the escalating warfare between government and armed rebel militias.

The most devastating and irreversible losses to Syria’s rich heritage of ancient cities and buildings are the result of looting. Much of this is by local people looking for treasure, though in many cases they are obliterating the archaeological record by using bulldozers.

Even worse is the situation at Dura-Europos where 300 people are excavating. A report by the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums says that efforts by local communities to stop the digging here have failed and heavy machinery is being used. The report says that illegal excavations have “led to the destruction of 80 per cent of the site as perpetrators are digging holes that can reach three meters in depth.”

In mid-January a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa on the Euphrates was destroyed, The Guardian reported. The official head of antiquities for the Raqqa province, who has fled to Damascus and does not want his name published, told The Independent: “A Turkish businessman had come to Raqqa to try to buy the mosaic. This alerted them to its existence and they came and blew it up. It is completely lost.”

It gets more troublesome.

The web site MIC.com reports that five important sites have been destroyed forever.

The Umayyad Mosque (image above) : Located in the old city of Aleppo, the Umayyad Mosque is another one of Syria’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites; it is also one of the oldest and most important mosques in the world. Regime and opposition forces have been battling for control over the building, absolutely thrashing it in the process. The minaret, which was almost 1,000 years old, was finally toppled earlier this year.

In an interview with the Daily Mail, Helga Seeden, professor of archaeology at the American University of Beirut, put this loss into context: "This is like blowing up the Taj Mahal or destroying the Acropolis in Athens. This mosque is a living sanctuary. This is a disaster. In terms of heritage, this is the worst I've seen in Syria. I'm horrified."

Aleppo's Souk Al-Madina:

This medieval souk, the largest covered historic market in the world, was badly burned and partially destroyed during fighting that began in September of 2012.

Al-Omari Mosque:

This mosque, founded in the early eighth century by the second caliph of Islam, Omar, is one of the oldest mosques in the world. During the early days of the war, it served as a field hospital and sanctuary for demonstrators. In 2013, its minaret was destroyed. Both sides allege that the other was responsible for its destruction.

Crac des Chevaliers:

One of Syria’s six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Crac des Chevaliers is one of the world’s most important medieval castles still in existence. Opposition fighters have been struggling to keep their hold on this strategically important fortress for over two years, drawing devastating shelling from regime forces. Having been bombed as recently as Oct. 21, 2013, this devastation has no end in sight.


As opposition forces fight with the Syrian Army in and around this ancient desert oasis, the breathtaking ruins have been rocked by shells, mortar bombs, and rockets.

The end to the fighting seems nowhere in sight.

Unless a concerted effort by the world’s archeological community, along with the United Nations, is implemented soon, many, if not most of Syria’s important and irreplaceable archeological sites will be lost to future exploration and historical understanding, a truly monumental loss to the world.

Tags: Unesco, Syrian Conflict and Archaeology, Archaeology destruction
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