As the war nears its third year, the United Nations and conservationists… (DEA / C. Sappa/De Agostini/Getty…)
MAFRAQ, Jordan — To the caches of ammunition and medicines that they lug each day from this border city back into their homeland, Syrian rebels have added new tools to support their fight against President Bashar al-Assad: metal detectors and pickaxes.
The rebels, struggling to finance their effort, have joined an emerging trade in illicitly acquired Syrian artifacts and antiquities, selling off the country’s past as the war for its future intensifies.
“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 heritagelandmarks and stunning archaeological sites, as rebel and government forces have transformed historical treasures such as the 1,000-year-old Aleppo 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.”
Amman, an active market
Conservationists and officials in Damascus say the emerging trade is driven by an increased desperation among rebel forces, who control the bulk of Syria’s archaeologically rich regions.
Although the rebel Free Syrian Army has repeatedly stressed its commitment to the protection of heritage sites, rebel leaders defend their participation in the illegal antiquities trade, deeming it a vital source of funding to sustain their uprising. Average hauls can command $50,000 on the black market, rebels said in interviews.
“We have been left to face an entire army without arms, without money and without help from the outside world,” said Abu Mohammed Hamad, an FSA coordinator at a safe house in the Jordanian city of Ramtha who described overseeing the excavation of Roman tombs outside Damascus, the Syrian capital. “It is within our right to use whatever resources we can find.”
Syrian rebels interviewed said they have begun dispatching loosely formed “excavation teams” — groups of young men who scour archeological sites for gold, mosaics, statues and other transportable artifacts that can be sold easily.
In a little over three months — a period in which rebels say looting has accelerated — the excavators claim to have uncovered an inventory that reads like the index of a history textbook: Bronze Age vessels from the southern town of Tal Shihab, Byzantine mosaics from the Church of St. Simeon near Aleppo and statuettes more than 2,000 years old from Bosra, an ancient city that is home to a well-preserved Roman theater.