When the uprising against Syria’s President Bashar Assad began two years ago, satellite images showed the ruins of the ancient Hellenic city of Apamea surrounded by green farmland. A year later, photos reveal a moonscape blighted by hundreds upon hundreds of holes. Looters in bulldozers armed with automatic weapons are exploiting the mayhem of Syria’s civil war to seize sites including Apamea, founded in 300 B.C. by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, where colonnaded streets stretch for almost 2 kilometers along a hilltop.
“It’s tragic, objects from archaeological sites risk being lost without us ever knowing they existed,” said Jonathan Tubb, keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum. “It can be callous to talk about this in the face of appalling human loss, but Syria’s cultural heritage is of such great importance to our understanding of human history that it’s only right we’re concerned.”
There are more endangered heritage sites in Syria than anywhere else in the world, the United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, said this year. The country has more than 10,000 archaeological sites left by the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans and other civilizations.
“We feel bitter and sad – many sites have been destroyed before our eyes,” Mamoun Abdul-Karim, head of Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, said in an interview from Damascus. “Clandestine excavations are most dangerous because they mean eternal death, while sites damaged by fighting can be restored.”
Abdul-Karim said his department stored artifacts in safe places to prevent a repeat of the pillaging that emptied the National Museum of Iraq of its Mesopotamian relics after the March 2003 war that toppled Saddam Hussein. He said that while antiquities officials had started local initiatives that included watch groups of tribal elders and civilians to protect sites, they had been confronted by gangs of heavily armed men and earth-moving equipment.
“Preventing the smuggling of antiquities and clandestine excavations is the responsibility of every Syrian,” he said. “Even if we have political disagreements, let’s not disagree over the country’s heritage.”
The opposition Syrian National Coalition said the government had no genuine respect for the country’s cultural past. It said Assad’s forces this week razed the mausoleum of Khaled Bin Walid in Homs, part of what it termed the destruction of “ancient and historic buildings, mosques, churches, houses, castles and other cultural, religious landmarks in an attempt to crush the Syrian revolution.”
About 280 people were killed across the country over the weekend, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights group said Monday. The war’s overall death toll has risen to more than 100,000 as of July 25, according to U.N. estimates.
In June, UNESCO placed six Syrian world heritage sites on its risk list. They include the ancient cities of Aleppo, Busra al-Sham and Damascus, 40 ancient northern villages, the crusader castles of Crac des Chevaliers and Qalaat Salaheddine, and Palmyra.
Also under threat are sites in remote regions known to have yielded significant objects in the past, Tubb said.
That includes Apamea, northwest of Hama in central Syria, where unauthorized digging is continuing, according to Abdul-Karim. Also affected are places like Mari, southeast of Deir al-Zor, where in 1933 French archaeologists unearthed the temple of the goddess Ishtar dating to the first Babylonian dynasty; and Ebla southwest of Aleppo, where an archive of about 20,000 cuneiform tablets in the earliest known Semitic language were found by Italians in the 1960s.
Historic sites “are hard to defend with limited resources even in good times because all it takes is a few people to turn up with machine guns,” Tubb said. “But the number of sites that will yield real treasures is minimal, you could search for the next six months to find something as good as what has already been found.”
The sort of prize looters seek would include bronzes and ancient tablets inscribed with religious or economic text, which can fetch 300 to 400 pounds ($460-$610) each and are often found in stashes of several hundred, he said.
Most looted objects end up in Turkey or Lebanon, according to Abdul-Karim. In 2012, about 4,000 pieces were recovered though Tubb said he hadn’t seen a single museum piece or object purported to have come from Syria.
Difficulties in finding and selling objects “doesn’t stop people from trying and that’s the issue: damage inflicted on sites in pursuit of artifacts,” he said.
Technology gives some sense of the scale of destruction, but only by having people on the ground can a reliable assessment be made.
“We sit here and speculate and look at satellite photos but we just don’t know what is happening,” Tubb said, “and that is the frustration, not being able to get on a plane and have a look.”