Syrian Archaeology, ‘Scale of the Scandal’

By : Michel Al-Maqdissi


The Syrian crisis has recently become noticeably more serious, and has turned into one of the most alarming situations in the Near East since the end of the Iraq War. The consequences to archaeology will be seen in the short and long term.

Apamea, 20 July 2011

In the short term, damage is occurring due to the increasing number of thefts of antiquities, illegal excavations, paralysed and wrecked museums and a halt to fieldwork. In the long term it will be affected by the massive exodus of trained archaeologists at the Direction Générale des Antiquités et des Musées (DGAM) and at the Musée National. Their absence will generate dramatic problems when archaeology in Syria returns to normal.

There is a deep fear of a brain drain, as a consequence of the emigration of researchers and the decline of scientific infrastructure. This is a disastrous phenomenon, which in both quantitative and qualitative terms effectively implies the disappearance of the DGAM as a scientific institution. This will impede the correct management of the post-war phase.

This is an authentic nightmare. Meanwhile, what can the DGAM do?

Apamea 4 April 2012, showing looting holes.

There are at least two points that escape foreign observers. First, is the DGAM’s inability to act on the ground in order to assess the damage that has already been done. The organization’s archaeologists receive no support, and have to be satisfied with diverse sources of information in order to write their reports.

Second, the absence of guards at the archaeological sites exposes them to vandalism and trafficking of antiquities, carried out by quasi-organised bands, formed by both by poor individuals and professionals who systematically export the objects outside the country. It should be made clear that certain groups are linked to international centres in Europe, the United States, even Arab countries and Israel. In this way, Syria has become an important source of increasing illegal trade, about which indirect information is beginning to amount.

Dura Europos, satellite view, 28 June 2012

This matter is completely out of the control of the archaeological authorities and the DGAM does even not possess the means to access the lists of the collections that are hidden in the country or in foreign deposits.

It should be added that, as often occurs in this type of situation, the traffickers keep well ahead of the responsible institutions. The most urgent need is really to find the necessary support and specialised teams to draw up lists of traffickers and, above all, to create an inventory of the antiquities that have been stolen.

Current situation: Factors and results

To ensure we achieve good results, we should base ourselves on tangible realities to create efficient networks of cooperation to address common objectives. These must be defined freely with no political influences.

Dura Europos, 2 April 2014 showing looting holes.

We need to act rapidly against a situation that is becoming noticeably worse. In fact we are faced by a volcano in permanent eruption with a mixture of hate and horror. It is breaking down Syrian society and its values through the violent and systematic destruction of its heritage. The situation is comparable to a boiling crater of lava. Around this volcano, archaeological heritage is suffering eruptive blasts, with the population hovering between expectation, anguish and hope.

Archaeological heritage in danger

After more than three years of civil war, we have reached a point that can be classed as catastrophic as regards the current state of Syrian archaeological heritage. What can be said about the numerous reports of the organised plundering of Apamea, Dura Europos and Palmyra, to cite only the most famous sites, and the robberies at the Museum of Raqqa and the antiquities storehouse at Qal’at Ja’bar?

Neo-Assyrian statue from Tell Ajaja flanked by ISIS members. Photo courtesy Michel al-Maqdissi.

Looted funerary bust from Palmyra flanked by two Syrian soldiers. Photo courtesy Michel al-Maqdissi.

Finally we must mention the latest outrage against humanity to destroyed the Neo Assyrian sculpture statue from Tell Ajaja (ancient Saddikanni) by a Salafi group in the region of Deir ez-Zor.

Without any clear objective, with no strategy and with numerous, indecisive and quarrelling leaders, the people of Syria are forced to entrust the management of the crisis to the military. This reasoning is working perfectly at the present time; the gods of war seem more comfortable with military management, they decide with lucidity and determination to unleash the destruction with the approval of the great world powers, risking the lives of men and women and at the same time, destroying the cultural and archaeological potential of a region with the same macabre scenarios and the same vocabulary full of hate and avarice.

This is the scale of the scandal. It will have to be accepted that, to combat an uprising of the people, the logic of war must be applied and in which our memory, our inheritance and our heritage are destroyed. We have seen that the history of conflicts in the region shows how, in many places like Iraq and Afghanistan, archaeological sites and historical monuments are destroyed forever.


I will finish this overview with a statement that should guide our thoughts: that for three years we have witnessed in Syria a profound, unprecedented archaeological upheaval and, for the first time in our history, the question of Syrian identity is really under threat.

Neo-Assyrian statue from Tell Ajaja being hammered by ISIS member. Photo courtesy Michel al-Maqdissi.

We are in the midst of a dramatic and absolutely heart-rending and inhuman situation. At the same time, we must stress that the authorities with responsibilities for Syrian antiquities are paralysed because of the lack of means. The DGAM is impotent to protect Syria’s priceless archaeological heritage, which has almost become a painful burden. This is a crucial point, although it has been repeated in all the deadly conflicts in the region.

It is therefore important to plan our efforts clearly in order to provide real help to the DGAM and, above all, cross the frontiers that now divide the country, reaching both sides. With such a plan, it might be thought that the problem is practically solved. However, other obstacles await us, even before starting the real task.

The ideal combination of actions must be carried out at the same time inside and outside Syria, the land being looted and the lands purchasing the loot. But most difficult of all, we must also offer to lend a hand both to the DGAM and to the people operating in areas under the control of the opposition. We must take action that would help lead each of the two sides to cultivate the notion of respect and protection for our mutual ancestors’ creations.

Michel Al-Maqdissi is a researcher at the Louvre Museum, teaches at the Université Saint-Joseph, Beirut, and until 2012 was Director of Excavations for the Direction Générale des Antiquités et des Musées, Damascus.


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