Museums And Heritage Sites In Syria Are Under Siege

Experts are training locals to preserve and protect art and antiquities.

The civil war devastating Syria and spilling into Iraq has claimed yet another casualty: museums and cultural heritage sites. As evidence of destruction mounts, the international community is moving to action.


Attacks on the region’s art and antiquities are coming from all sides. Some sites have attracted looters, some lie directly within conflict zones, and still others have caught the policing eye of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, which has become increasingly dominant among the warring factions. (A militant group that emerged from the shadow of Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS is fighting to create an Islamic state that would combine parts of Iraq and Syria and have a stifling effect similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan.)

The list of sites in danger continues to grow: Satellite images have revealed looting at sites like Dura-Europos, a Hellenistic archeological site near the Iraq border. The ancient souk and Umayyad mosque in Aleppo and the Byzantine mosaics at the Ma’arra Museum in northwest Syria have been under direct assault. And after ISIS insurgents took control of Raqqa, a northern city in Syria, artifacts from the museum there soon appeared in neighboring Lebanon and Turkey.

Temple of Bel via Wikipedia

To minimize the damage, U.S. museums are partnering with the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force to train local curators and civilians in emergency packing and other practices designed to safeguard cultural treasures.

“What we’re doing is cultural triage,” Brian Daniels, director of research and programs at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center in Philadelphia, told the BBC after returning from a workshop held at an undisclosed location in Turkey. “What we’re talking about is how do you sandbag collections for safety when you are coming under assault? What gets saved and what doesn’t? How do you treat the interior of the building when you expect it to collapse? This is a very grim business.”


The stakes are high, as the damage can be swift and irreversible. After the fall of Baghdad to U.S. troops in 2003, looters stripped the National Museum of Iraq bare in less than two days, pillaging more than 170,000 artifacts. Militant groups with religious views similar to those of ISIS have blown up statues of Buddha in Afghanistan and demolished Sufi shrines in Timbuktu, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Outside of relying on the courage and expertise of locals, preservationists have few tools at their disposal. Melik Kaylan, arts and culture critic for the Wall Street Journal, has recommended more widespread use of virtual catalogs: “At both the Baghdad and Kabul museums, public inventorying by U.S. experts helped prevent further thefts while also curbing the black market in objects already looted,” he wrote.

But those solutions may be too little, too late. “I’m sure that if they continue to control this city, they will destroy all of those things,” Qais Hussein, head of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, told the Journal, in reference to Mosol, Iraq’s second-largest city, now in ISIS hands. “They’ve already aggressively attacked our employees working in those sites and in the museums telling them that this is haram [forbidden] to work in a place with those statues and objects.”

[H/T The Art Newspaper]


About the author

Staff writer Ainsley (O'Connell) Harris covers the business of technology with a focus on financial services and education. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.