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The perils of history and antiquity in Syria

The looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq is an example the consequences of war on national heritage. Almost a decade on, the civil war in Syria has seen history repeating itself…

The Crusader fortress of Krak De Chevalier has been damaged by shelling after rebels used it as a defensive position. AAP image

The looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq is an example the consequences of war on national heritage. Almost a decade on, the civil war in Syria has seen history repeating itself. Almost daily, new reports emerge of damage to archaeological sites and museums.

Like its neighbours, Syria is a rich trove of archaeological treasures from all eras of civilisation with dozens of museums housing countless thousands of artefacts. An update of known damage to archaeological sites and museums as a result of the civil war was published in May by the Global Heritage Fund and regular updates of damage are provided through the Facebook page of Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger.

Large-scale ruins provide ample shelter and sites from which to organise military activity on both sides of the conflict. It is for this reason that Roman, early Islamic and Crusader period structures have suffered the most from the protracted conflict.

Archaeological concern is not wholly for ancient fortresses and ruins. Most of Syria’s larger cities are living archaeological sites. The ancient cities of Hama, Homs, Aleppo and Damascus have in some cases borne the brunt of extensive shelling and aerial bombardment.

In addition, there are some reports of looting and thefts from museums such as the mosaic museum at Apamea, and the theft of gilt statuettes from Hama. At this stage systematic looting of museums in Syria has not been reported.

The unfolding situation in Syria is a tragedy with a mostly civilian death toll that approaches 20,000 whilst the fate of its archaeological and historical treasures is increasingly compared with that of Iraq in 2003.

It can be argued, however, that the involvement of ancient sites in the conflict will eventually form part of their long histories. There are many earlier examples in the Middle East which today form integral, and sometimes admired, elements of the histories of now older civilisations which themselves looted and ransacked sites of venerable antiquity.

Ancient obelisks from Egypt still attract visitors to the piazzas of Rome and tourists visiting the churches and museums of Venice bear witness to the result of the wholesale looting of Constantinople.

The streets of Aleppo, rich in cultural and historical heritage, are the front line in the civil war. hovic/flickr
Closer to home the Australian War Memorial houses the Shellal Mosaic which, before being dug up in 1917, formed part of the floor of a sixth century Byzantine church in what is now modern Israel. The partially damaged mosaic was discovered by Australian troops and transported back to Australia. In 1941 it was reassembled and cemented into an internal wall of the Memorial where it remains a prominent attraction.

These examples of damage to ancient monuments and artefacts as a result of war have become integral to the history of both victor and vanquished, plundered and plunderer. This in no way excuses the actions of armies or thieves, and it shouldn’t demean the heroic and heartfelt efforts of individuals and groups inside and outside of Syria to protect ancient sites and artefacts.

It is, however, important to put these events into a global context if we are to learn anything from them and human history. We are not outside observers playing little more than a helpless role in cataloguing and lamenting the mounting losses of cultural heritage in Syria. The civil war in Syria is the partial outworking of previous western involvement in the Middle East. With some connecting events in Syria to the post-WW1 carve up of the Ottoman Empire by colonial forces.

If the museums of Syria are seriously looted, the market for these treasures will be private collectors and in some cases reputable museums in the rich economies of the west and Asia.

It is worth remembering that many of the endangered archaeological sites and artefacts we treasure are the result of looting and destruction perpetrated by the very civilisations whose histories we seek to preserve and understand.