Can the worst patrimonial disaster since World War II be stopped?
No matter how badly this observer periodically assesses the threat to our cultural heritage as he travels across Syria, the reality always turns out to be worse.
As we enter 2015, much of Syria has been reduced to apocalyptic landscapes. During the 45 months of the Syrian crisis, war destruction inflicted from all sides has created massive damage to our shared global cultural heritage that has been in the custody of the Syrian people for more than ten millennia.
Few would dispute the fact that the level of destruction of Syria’s archaeological sites has become catastrophic. Unauthorized excavations, plunder, and trafficking in stolen cultural artifacts in Syria is a serious and escalating problem and threatens the cultural heritage of us all. Due to illicit excavations, many objects have already been lost to science and society.
Today, the single greatest threat to our cultural heritage in Syria is looting. It is rampant and being done from many sources. One virulent source is Da’ish (IS) and like-minded jihadists who desecrate and destroy irreplaceable artifacts and lay siege to and loot more than 2000 archeological sites under its control in Syria and double that number in Iraq.
Jihadists in Syria are estimated to have reaped more than $20 million from looted artifacts during 2014, and they rationalize their frenzy of wonton obliteration by sighting religious obligations. Also increasingly active in looting Syria’s cultural heritage are local residents who, with no jobs, income, or tangible economic prospects, are increasingly turning to age-old plunder taking advantage of a growing cash market to feed their families.
The trade in looted Syrian cultural artifacts has become the third largest market in illegal goods worldwide. Current laws at the national and international level are woefully inadequate to prevent the illicit traffic in looted antiquities and even less, to effectuate the return of stolen antiquities to their countries of origin. In the 1960s, according to experts, it was a buyers’ market as there were few national collectors interested in Islamic art or other antiquities in Syria. But that that has now dramatically changed since the Gulf countries Qatar and Abu Dhabi started collecting, and it is also now a seller’s market.
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a crossroads for trade and culture for countless centuries, has been particularly hard hit. Its vast labyrinthine souk was gutted by fire in 2012. The Citadel, a castle that dates back to 3000 BC, has also been damaged, while the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque was toppled by fighting in 2013. But hundreds of other sites have also been looted and shops selling Syrian antiquities dot the Turkey side of the border just 40 miles north of Aleppo. . . .