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Story Publication logo August 27, 2014

Stealing Syria’s Past

Image by James Harkin. Turkey, 2014.

How some of northern Syria’s children are being reared into a life of praying and jihad by a new...

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The remains of the ancient city of Apamea, which thrived from the 4th century BC onwards, have been seriously damaged. Image by AGE Fotostock. Syria.

It came at the end of a long conversation in the cool heat of early March in the Turkish border town of Antakya. Foreign journalists, fearing kidnap at the hands of Islamic extremists, have largely given up crossing the border into rebel-held northern Syria, and I wondered how my coffee companion, a portly Syrian who'd been working for some of those journalists, was making ends meet. Not to worry, replied Amer. "I have a new job in the antiques business. Same dangers as before. And top secret. Don't tell anyone."

Since Syria's descent into civil war, Antakya and other cities along Turkey's long, porous border with the country have become conduits for the illegal trafficking of Syrian antiquities. Having once made a living smuggling journalists into Syria, Amer was now smuggling stolen antiquities in the other direction. Most of the merchandise, he told me, came from Apamea—an archaeological site further down the Orontes river in the Syrian province of Hama. Prices began at $100, for which the punter could have a Roman-era coin, and went as high as $100,000 for statues and rare manuscripts. Amer's role was to lure well-heeled customers from America or Europe to southern Turkey, which is where he thought I might come in handy. I told him I was happy to have a look. "But be careful," he said. "There is Interpol. And Turkish law doesn't like this kind of thing." Amer could always slip back into Syria, but his main fear was losing the merchandise. It was, literally, irreplaceable.

Amer's new business, I discovered, was a lean, multinational enterprise. Small teams armed with metal detectors or brushes began by spreading out and searching an area. Some were skilled in archaeological excavation before the revolt, others had learned on the job. Another group of specialists was charged with certifying the authenticity of anything found, after which the objects were passed to polishers who'd get them ready to be sold. Then they were passed to the smugglers who moved them into Turkey. Only then would they make it to Amer. Just a few days previously, he boasted, he'd sold 18 coins just minutes after crossing the Syrian border. Some Saudis had also expressed interest, and were sending along specialists to verify the goods. The arrangement was that Amer was to take his commission by adding a 10 per cent premium to the price, and only got paid when he made a sale. In the photos he showed me there were pots, a huge slab which looked like a limestone relief, coins embossed with the face of a third-century queen who led a revolt against the Roman Empire, and a series of lurid pictures of a gun which he swore had been handled by Napoleon during his Syrian campaign. As a new face Amer was only trusted to carry the smaller items, which was why he had only photos of the rest. "Nobody trusts anyone anymore," he shrugged.

I was intrigued when he referred to Apamea because I've been there myself. In October 2010, I spent more than week touring around Syria as part of a large group of international journalists. The invitation had mentioned something about an annual festival of culture, but the real point was to present a shiny new image for the country as a destination for global tourism. The itinerary included a hair-raising race around a reservoir on tug boats pumping out 1980s Arab techno music, and a sit-down lunch 50 yards away from an Israeli minefield in the Golan region. But, for the most part, the officials in charge of the visit simply made the most of what they had: a trek to the awe-inspiring underground tombs at Palmyra; a stroll around the citadel in Aleppo; a tour of the Christian monasteries of Ma'loula; a steep drive up a ravine to Saladin's castle where 150 teenage boys, dressed up like medieval warriors and wielding swords, stood on either side of the entrance to the castle. By the end of the trip even the weariest of us hacks had softened up. At the Crac des Chevaliers, a medieval crusader castle on a hilltop which T.E. Lawrence pronounced "perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable in the world," I disturbed one dissolute alcoholic who'd found a quiet promontory and was staring into space, left dumbstruck and emotional at the place's rugged proximity to history.

Then there was the ancient city of Apamea itself. It had its heyday from the 4th century BC through to the Roman and Byzantine periods, before being taken by the Crusaders and later the Arabs, who reconstructed the ancient fortress of Qalaat al-Madiq. What I remember is a breathtaking walk along the central colonnaded avenue, built during the Hellenistic period and rebuilt by the Romans, with huge symmetrical columns on either side as far as the eye could see.

Four years later Apamea, along with most of the rest of Syria's archaeological treasures, finds itself in a war zone. Medieval fortresses make excellent modern fortifications, and both sides in the civil war haven't hesitated to use them for military advantage. The result, unsurprisingly, is that many have been badly damaged by shelling. The citadel at the Crac des Chevaliers, for example, made an excellent hideout for armed rebels and their families, and may have been damaged by heavy artillery or the Syrian air force. When it returned to the custody of the Syrian army in March this year, the authorities acknowledged structural damage to the towers and interior staircases, and partial destruction of the walls. With the absurdist optimism that has come to characterize the pronouncements of Syrian officialdom, the Culture Ministry declared its intention to "make it nicer than before so that it can receive visitors next year."

Collateral destruction by shelling was only the beginning of Syria's archaeological nightmare, however. When the revolt segued into all-out civil war, looters arrived en masse and began digging up anything they could find. In Apamea, as Amer described it, the Syrian army was holed up in the medieval fortress, while much of the town remained under the control of different rebel groups or no one at all. It was here that desperate locals, working alongside their new partners, were digging up anything that they could. Emma Cunliffe, a heritage consultant who also visited Apamea in 2010 and describes it as her "favourite place in Syria," is now deeply worried for its future. In a satellite image of the place taken in December 2012, Cunliffe saw a tank emplacement next to what used to be the coffee shop. The looters had arrived even earlier. Cunliffe referred me to two maps of the site available on Google Earth, the first taken in September 2011 and the second in April of the following year. In the latter, the earth was so thoroughly potholed that it resembled the surface of the moon.

The joy of antiquity in Syria is that it hasn't been fenced off. Partly as a result of the benign neglect which often accompanies underdevelopment, it remains part of the backdrop to everyday life. Syria has tens of thousands of sites littered with archaeological treasure; much of it hidden, like gold deposits, deep in the earth. All six of its UNESCO World Heritage sites have been affected by the fighting. Apamea, which Unesco was considering adding to those sites before the war began, has fared worse than most. Along with the much of the rest of Syria's outdoor archaeology, it is now being laid to waste by heavy weaponry or else taken out of the country to be sold off.

What can be done about the destruction and looting of Syrian antiquities? A few weeks after I returned from Antakya, and with the help of UNESCO's World Heritage Unit, I located the official in Damascus responsible for trying to reverse the tide. Until recently, Ma'amoun Abdul-Karim was living a relatively quiet life as a university professor in Damascus. Now, as head of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) in the Culture Ministry, and with 2,500 staff under his command, he's the closest Syria gets to having its own "Monument Man." "The crisis in Syria is tragic," he began, in a speech which sounded wearily well-rehearsed. "The destruction of humanity, of the infrastructure, of the organism, of the architectural heritage."

We were speaking by video link, and my Arabic and French are so bad that Abdul-Karim frequently had to stifle giggles, which jarred somewhat with his horror at what was happening to his country's heritage. Many of his staff are former students and they are spread around the country, sometimes in areas controlled by rebel groups. "Example—we have Free Army in Maarat al-Numaan [in Idlib province], but my staff work there, because they are from the area. We know the region, and the tribal power in each area, and we try to find compromises from all parties to protect the cultural heritage. The cultural heritage doesn't change—it is damage to all parties."

Unlike some of his predecessors, who echoed the rhetoric of the Syrian regime by blaming every problem on "terrorists," Abdul-Karim does his best to stay out of politics. "I am a professor and an academician. I am here to help my staff. Most of my students work in these areas. How can I talk to them about politics? It's forbidden." When I mentioned allegations that some rebel groups were selling artifacts to fund their military campaigns, he chose his words carefully. On the contrary, he suggested, his staff sometimes reach understandings with rebel militias about how best to safeguard local antiquities. "My personal opinion—it's criminal, the work of an armed archaeological mafia, but sometimes they find compromises or alliances with some rebel armed groups. You know, it's not one opposition in Syria. We have a lot of commanders, a lot of different groups."

Abdul-Karim's staff have good relationships with local communities, and sometimes work with rebel groups to safeguard antiquities. "For [local people] it is their honour, their history, and their memory." But he admits that in Apamea and several other historical cities near the border with Iraq their efforts have failed. In Apamea there has been "savage destruction" and the kind of amateur excavation which often ends up destroying anything it finds. In some places bulldozers are being used. "These armed groups give money to people to help them to loot and to excavate these sites. The people are poor, they try to have some dollars to live. There is a great deal of manipulation."

Much dangerous work is being done by ordinary Syrians to protect their architectural heritage. And many of the moveable contents of Syria's 40 museums were hidden away before the conflict intensified. In the northern province of Raqqa, under the control of Islamist zealots who often destroy pre-Islamic artifacts or representations of the human body they find profane, Abdul-Karim's staff quietly whisked artifacts away to secret locations, where they remain. Since 2013, when it became clear that the civil war was not going to end any time soon, international institutions such as Interpol and the World Monuments Fund have taken tentative steps to help out. In December 2013, UNESCO warned that illegal archaeological excavation in Syria was "not very high on the radar of the international community."

The week before I spoke to Abdul-Karim, the DGAM had been granted €2.5m by the European Union to implement an action plan to combat antiquities theft and raise awareness of the losses. Emma Cunliffe told me he is doing all the right things— reaching out to international institutions, organizing workshops and attending conferences, keeping up the pressure on anyone tempted to buy stolen Syrian artifacts. But it's like trying to block a sieve. "What we need now," Abdul-Karim told me, "is [to work out] how to stop the illicit trafficking and to push the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon to close their borders against this illegal archaeological mafia." His team have received 93 artifacts back from Lebanon, all of them authentic. From Turkey, however, whose government is implacably hostile to the Syrian regime, he says there has been "no contact, no declarations. They refuse contact with us. We need all these countries to take the same steps, to fight the mafia."

Abdul-Karim is right to try to steer his work clear of both sides in a messy civil war, but if he thinks he can keep archaeology out of Syrian politics, he's fighting a losing battle. The DGAM is only one of several organizations working to protect the national heritage. Others exist as volunteer groups, often with meager resources and sometimes only on Facebook, and many refuse to work with the DGAM because they see it an inextricably linked to the Syrian regime. The most influential is the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA). When I phoned its president, Cheikhmous Ali, a Syrian academic and intellectual who lives in exile in Strasbourg, he was happy to admit that he leans towards the Syrian rebels and against the regime. All the same, his views on archaeology echoed those of the professor in Damascus. "I am personally with the revolution," he told me, "but for the work it is very important to be neutral. The most important thing is to know the scale of the destruction; the destruction by the opposition, by the regime, by the Islamists, by the population." With an ample network inside Syria, and relying heavily on social media, APSA works to document the scale of the destruction, and produces regular updates on the losses.

I mentioned the illegal excavation of Apamea and my dealings with Amer. "C'est triste," he said. The DGAM in Damascus is doing good work in battling illegal excavations, he told me, "but for other things, like the occupation and destruction of buildings by the army, it is not good work." Back in 2012, according to Ali, the Citadel in Apamea was bombed for several days by tanks positioned around the site. Around the same time, 30 mosaics were stolen. "The Syrian Army was there on site; they see the people who are making these illegal excavations, and they don't arrest them." Ali suspects that in places such as Apamea there must be an agreement between army commanders and the people who are excavating, but concedes that some rebel groups may well be responsible too. When I asked him about Adbul-Karim, he told me that he is a good man trying to do his best, but that his room for maneuvre is circumscribed by his position within the regime. "He can't say the whole truth. He wants to but he doesn't have the power to say stop to all this destruction by the Syrian army," said Ali. "Il n'a pas le pouvoir." Both men, however, come to the same conclusion about illegal looting: the people behind it are criminals who will work with anyone to get what they want.

Many Syrian revolutionaries are, like Ali, aghast at the plundering of their country's antiquities. Their political goal was to force the country into a brighter future, but the assault on Syria's world-class historical past is going to make that much more difficult. And after three years of conflict and hundreds of thousands of deaths, many Syrians are understandably desperate for funds. In Antakya I'd told Amer that I thought all this was a tragedy. "Yes," he said. "Very bad. But everyone has to eat. What can we do?" Most Syrians I've spoken to disagreed. "We are all poor," said one well-connected rebel activist when I told him the story. "But we don't do this."

What is clear is that the subject of archaeological theft speaks much more clearly to the Syrian regime's view of the world than that of the opposition. The preservation of archaeological treasures is an inherently conservative discipline, after all. Even before the revolt began, Syria's archaeological bounty was used to buttress the standing of the Assad regime. In 2004, Asma al-Assad, the British-born wife of the president, even received an honorary doctorate from an Italian university "for the development of historical and archaeological studies in Syria." The criminal appetite for stolen archaeology in the region had already been whetted by the constitutional mess in Iraq—something which most Syrians wanted to avoid at all costs. Then there's the obvious truth that most antiquities theft is carried out via smuggling routes under the nominal control of rebel groups. For supporters of President Assad, the looting of antiquities is a powerful metaphor for the descent of elements of the Syrian revolution into banditry, the insidious role of foreign money and, most poignantly, the dangers of interfering with the country's brittle sectarian mosaic. As parts of Syria are being ripped up and sold to the highest bidder, it's an argument not lost even on those Syrians with no love for the Ba'athist regime.

Abdul-Karim had offered to take a look at the pictures I'd been sent by Amer, but he doubted their authenticity. He'd received many pictures of mosaics and other artifacts which purported to come from the site, he said, but most turned out to be fakes. Even before the conflict there was a small industry of counterfeiters working around Apamea to separate tourists from their travelers' cheques. "Their workmanship is often fantastic," he told me, with a hint of national pride, so much so that it was often difficult to tell what was the real thing. At the end of March, he got back in touch. Although he and his team would obviously need to see the objects to make a final judgement, "our first observation [is] that [they] are original, some of them from Apamea and the others from different sites." The gun was definitely authentic. It came from an old pistol collection which had been looted from Der Atieh, a museum between Damascus and Homs, after it was briefly captured by Islamist rebels in November last year. The pottery probably was too, and dated from the Islamic era. "I hope also you will be able to inform Interpol," he signed off. William Webber, who runs a register and due diligence service for museums called the Art Loss Register, broadly agreed. Having consulted with a colleague at the British Museum, Webber said: "Judging by their condition and known archaeological find spots, [the pottery] is unquestionably originating from looted graves"—mostly likely from the middle Euphrates area of northern Syria.

Webber believes that there is a market for these kinds of stolen antiquities among well-heeled private buyers in Europe, the United States and the Gulf. Some of them may already be there. Since professional antiquities thieves are smart enough to wait their moment and choose the right customers, few people have any idea of when and where artifacts might show up. Cheikhmous Ali told me that a relief much like the one I'd been sent had been stolen from Palmyra and sold in Italy before it was recovered by the Italian authorities. I brought up the subject of Amer's pictures and he began, just as Abdul-Karim had, by warning that they might not be what they seem. To illustrate his point, he sent me a stone drawing and we examined it together online. The drawing had been advertised as coming from the Assyrian era, he said, but on closer examination, it was obvious that its figures were wearing entirely the wrong clothes. But when I forwarded him the pictures I'd been sent, he agreed that they were very likely the real thing and that they came from a number of sites in northern Syria. Though they're reluctant to admit it, Syrians, even sparring academics, often agree on more than they think.


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