March 14, 2015

The Daily Star

By Samar Kadi

BEIRUT: Syria’s opulent cultural treasures, including six sites on the world heritage list, are at high risk. Illegal excavations and looting have rapidly increased since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, now in its fifth year, damaging many historical sites, while important Syrian cultural property has been siphoned out of the country to end up on the black market or in private collections.

In addition to displacing millions of people, killing and wounding hundreds of thousands and causing massive material destruction, the brutal Syrian conflict is threatening to destroy the collective memory of the Syrian people as well, UNESCO has warned recently.

How do you protect Syria’s invaluable and irreplaceable cultural heritage from being looted and smuggled out of the country?

Cristina Menegazzi, an official with the U.N. cultural body, said the international agency is seeking to narrow markets for the illicit trade, hoping that by reducing demand and clamping down on potential buyers, the supply would eventually decrease and the business would become less attractive to thieves excavating for antiquities.

Looting of Syrian antiquities, especially from sites in the areas falling under the control of Islamist militant groups, has surged dramatically since the beginning of the conflict, Menegazzi said. “We know for sure that illegal excavations have increased, as evidenced by satellite pictures which show increasing numbers of excavation holes in most archaeological sites. But we don’t have a precise figure about the volume of looted objects, because we don’t know what has been dug out.”

She explained that tracing the stolen treasures will be a complicated and a daunting task, since most of the looted objects are freshly unearthed and thus not catalogued or registered.

“If they are exported illegally it will be very complicated to identify them and to demonstrate that these objects went out of Syria during this period, because the [Syrian] Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums, cannot justify with papers and certificates that those objects really belonged to Syria.”

The destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq has reached alarming levels, prompting the U.N. Security Council to pass Resolution 2199 in February, outlawing the siphoning of archeological sites and sanctioning such acts globally.

In addition, Menegazzi said, UNESCO inked agreements with major auction houses and big world museums under which they agreed to refrain from buying any Syrian antiquities that are not supported by official certificates and proofs of provenance. She maintained that, although antiquities could still be purchased through the Internet and through the “dark channels” of antiques mafias, the adoption of legally binding global measures to counter the illicit traffic and enlisting the support of potential buyers, help narrow down trafficking channels and markets.

“If the demand is not there and they [traffickers] know they cannot sell the objects and will not be able to make benefits, they might discontinue excavations,” she contended.

UNESCO has also launched an international awareness-raising campaign and trained police and customs officers in Syria and neighboring countries used as transit stations, including Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, on how to distinguish suspected looted antiquities.

Among Syria’s neighbors, Lebanon and Turkey are the most favored smuggling routes for Syrian antiques thieves, according to Lt. Col. Nicholas Saad, head of Lebanon’s Bureau of International Theft.

In four years, since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Lebanese police have seized over 1,000 antiquities, mainly looted from areas under the control of Islamist groups. “Much more objects are probably being successfully smuggled, as we only have 5 to 10 percent chance to intercept them, relying mainly on customs’ searches and tips from our own informers,” Saad said.

Theft of antiquities has always existed in Syria, but it has “thrived” under the existing chaos, especially in the regions controlled by ISIS, Saad said. “Gangs are ready to pay any militia, any armed group, any army to facilitate illegal excavations and smuggling.”

“Islamist militant groups, who do not care about antiquities which they see as mere stones and not [conforming] with their beliefs, do not mind selling them for a few pennies, because they don’t really know that these stones cost fortunes when they are sold abroad,” Saad added.

Lebanon is a favored transit station on the way to the final destination, namely Europe and the United States, Saad said, adding that the trafficking is almost exclusively carried out by Syrian nationals, with probable help from Lebanese accomplices.

The pieces are smuggled through legal and illegal crossings, sometimes concealed within the belongings of Syrian refugees. “In one instance, Lebanese customs at the border crossing of Masnaa [in east Lebanon] seized 18 Roman mosaic panels on a bus carrying refugees,” Saad said.

Many of the looted treasures seized in Lebanon came from the Necropolis at Palmyra, where the ruins of one of the most important cities of the ancient world still stand, northeast of Damascus, the Lebanese officer said. They comprised items of all sizes from small pottery, to stonework, statues, columns and even huge funeral sculptures.

The seized items are handed over to Lebanon’s Directorate General of Antiquities, which then informs its counterpart in Syria and starts the procedure to repatriate the pieces. Lebanon has been praised for being the “most collaborative” in restituting the stolen treasures. “We have returned about 350 pieces so far, more than any other country neighboring Syria,” Saad said.

While the majority of the artifacts in the 34 Syrian national museums have been transferred to secure warehouses, almost all the looted items are from excavations and the warehouses on archaeological sites, Menegazzi pointed out. “These items are not listed or cataloged yet, and thus looters believe they are easier to sell,” she said, noting that most sites have been targeted, though those situated near the borders are, in general, more susceptible to being affected by looters who take advantage of their location to quickly smuggle artifacts out of the country.

UNESCO has enlisted the support of NGOs and local communities in protecting Syria’s heritage. “We try to explain to them that it is better to protect their national heritage instead of contributing to illegal excavations to raise money.” “But, unfortunately, in a situation of war, it is tempting to help in excavations, especially when you need money to eat and to feed your children,” Menegazzi said.

Syria is a cultural treasure trove with Bronze Age and Roman ruins, majestic Crusaders castles and vestiges of great empires of the Middle East, which a protracted and escalating war is threatening with more brazen theft and destruction. “The real danger is the destruction of the sites, because then you cannot do anything,” Menegazzi cautioned. “With smuggled objects, you can always try to find them and return them back to the country.”