Amid the devastation and danger of civil war, Syrian archaeologists and activists are risking their lives in the battle against looting. . . .
The ancient city of Dura-Europos sits on a bluff above the Tigris River a few miles from Syria’s border with Iraq, its mud-brick walls facing a bleak expanse of desert. Just a year ago the city’s precise grid of streets—laid down by Greek and Roman residents 2,000 years ago—was largely intact. Temples, houses, and a substantial Roman outpost were preserved for centuries by the desert sands.
“It stood out for its remarkable preservation,” saysSimon James, an archaeologist at the U.K.’s University of Leicester who spent years studying the site’s Roman garrison. “Until now.” (See before and after pictures of archaeological site looting.)
Satellite images of the site released by the U.S. State Department in June show a shocking picture of devastation. In the past year, as fighting continued to rage between the government of President Bashar al Assad’s troops and rebels—including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—the site has been ravaged by industrial-scale looting.
“It’s a lunar landscape of spoil heaps,” says James. “Obviously, the looters were bankrolled to a massive extent to do something like this.”
It may be too late to save Dura-Europos, but archaeologists and activists are scrambling to preserve what’s left of Syria’s rich history, which stretches back more than 10,000 years. The efforts are focused on training locals to save ancient monuments and museum collections in the midst of a war zone.
Organizations including the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Center, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and Heritage for Peace, a network of volunteers and activists based in Spain, have been holding workshops to train Syrian archaeologists, curators, and activists in “first aid for objects and sites,” says Emma Cunliffe, a consultant specializing in heritage protection during conflicts. . . .”