The impact of armed conflict on cultural heritage is once again highlighted by current events: the civil war in Syria. To add to the horror and destruction brought upon the Syrian population, the war is shattering Syria’s cultural heritage. A recent Foreign Policy article (“The Art of Civil War”) elaborates on how the conflict in Syria is affecting the country’s antiquities.
According to the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), the looting is more damaging than the fighting that is destroying mosques, old houses, and Crusader castles. As conflict has dragged on, looting of the country’s “archaeological treasure trove” (consisting of 35 museums and 10,000 archaeological sites) has become more commonplace. In the last decade alone prices for antiquities have increased tenfold, making the smuggling of antiquities to the prominent buyers (notably in Israel, Britain, and the United States) a lucrative venture.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), therefore, is using antiquities as currency – exchanging stolen Syrian patrimony for guns. Smuggler Abu Khader is noted as saying, “They give me antiquities, I give them guns.” Apparently, cuneiform tablets, Roman friezes and statues, and Byzantine coins are “particularly popular.”
Only 3% of Syria’s heritage sites remain outside the conflict zone, and all UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria have been affected by the war. Abdel-Karim, Director of the DGAM, states that Syria is endeavoring to minimize the damage to its heritage in an attempt to avoid repeating Iraq’s experience in 2003. One such effort is the closing of museums to the public and the movement of their collections to secure locations.
We are NOT doomed to repeat history.