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Idlib’s antiquities: A forgotten tragedy in northwest Syria 

Through their eroding cobblestones and damaged, worn-out carvings, Idlib province's heritage sites tell the tale of another unfolding tragedy in northwest Syria.

17 March 2020

AMMAN — As Damascus seized control over Idlib’s countryside in the last few months and over one million fled the incursion, only the province’s heritage sites remained in place. Through their eroding cobblestones and damaged, worn-out carvings, the sites tell the tale of another unfolding tragedy in northwest Syria.

Some ruins and relics date back to the Roman and Byzantine periods in the fourth millennium BC and display the rural and village lifestyles in late antiquity. A few of the most prominent ruins, according to UNESCO’s World Heritage list, are the Forgotten Cities in northwest Syria. A group of 700 abandoned settlements between Aleppo and Idlib, the Forgotten Cities represent a third of Syria’s total antiquities sites and 51% of the country’s archeological mounds. Their relics reflect the development of Christianity in the east: dwellings, churches, and Christian sanctuaries, funerary monuments, bathhouses, and public buildings. 

When Syrian opposition factions took control of Idlib province in 2012, the Idlib Antiquities Center began monitoring and preserving ancient monuments and sites. Continuous bombardment, illegal excavations, and the settlement of displaced civilians in the ruins have been a constant threat to their preservation. With the support of international partners, the center supervised 740 sites until the most recent government military campaign, Ayman al-Nabo, director of the Idlib Antiquities Center, told Syria Direct.

Russian-backed Syrian government forces captured large parts of the southern countryside of Idlib through the most recent military campaign that started last December, forcing lines to be redrawn and supervision reassessed. The government-captured area included more than 100 archeological sites, according to al-Nabo.

“Only 600 sites remain under our supervision now,” he said.

The current objective in those areas, according to a senior official in pro-government Syria’s Antiquities and Museums Directorate, is an emergency intervention. 

“A council coordinated to survey damages in the areas showed that they had been subject to large infringements and illegal excavations,” the senior official told Syria Direct. “When the situation settles, we will start the restoration process right away.”

But Shaker al-Shbib, a founding member and director of programs at Syrians for Heritage (SIMAT), a cultural association that preserves Syrian heritage in Idlib and supports the Idlib Antiquities Center, is concerned about the preservation of Idlib’s heritage going forward. 

“You still have looting and military management causing problems,” al-Shbib said. “Some problems will disappear and new ones will appear. The archeology team in Idlib still runs the Idlib museum, and we can still work in northwest Idlib and Aleppo, but we can’t do a lot of things now.”

In addition to damage caused by shelling and bombardment, some sites have been looted by residents who break ancient stones, excavate areas at will, and build new homes in abandoned archaeological sites, al-Shbib told Syria Direct

When heavy fighting and shelling in Idlib’s countryside began, many families fled their villages and homes to find temporary shelter in Idlib’s ancient ruins. Villagers moved their property from houses to ancient sites and only brought what they could carry: pots and pans, stoves, torches, and plastic tarps. At sunset, they took refuge in caves and historical buildings to cook meals over campfires while children scampered among household goods and ancient stones. 

Reports and experts indicate that receiving waves of displaced families has destroyed sites, as families cut large stones— which were originally used in building the historical houses in the area— to sell them or use them to build shelters.

“We can’t coordinate with the people who work there [government-captured areas] now,” al-Shbib said. “We can’t document the status of the sites going forward. It is kind of a sad separation.” 

Documenting violations

Since the establishment of the Idlib Antiquities Center of Idlib in 2012, al-Nabo has been in contact with local organizations who document violations on the ground, as well as archaeologists outside Syria, to try to preserve as much of Syria’s heritage as possible. 

The center’s archeologists and workers received training from the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, Tsukuba University of Japan, and the University of London on how to preserve archeology during wars and have been documenting archeological violations inside Idlib since their establishment. The center coordinates with Lawyers for Justice, a Syrian organization documenting violations, including against antiquities. 

“We started using electronic archiving, aerial photography and the use of three-dimensional technology to document and preserve archaeological buildings from loss,” al-Nabo said. 

Lawyers for Justice examines ruins that were subject to bombardment and gather concrete physical evidence, such as missile remnants, to archive electronically. Shelling may not have destroyed all the buildings and monuments, but it has caused an excessive amount of damage to old houses, churches and other historical buildings that may not be reconstructed.

Additionally, artifact smuggling has been an issue in Syria even before 2011. With the limited work options available in Idlib today, impoverished civilians participate in the trade even more frequently; there is no one in charge to limit and subsequently stop this, al-Shbib said. 

The indiscriminate excavations in ancient sites across Idlib province have led to a boom in the antiquities trade in recent years; however, the threat these excavations pose to archaeological sites vary from one place to another, depending on the historical and cultural framework. Many young people in the province have excavated and sold artifacts as part of larger networks of antiquities trafficking to make a living. 

Smugglers have connections to both opposition fighters and regime officials and transport the artifacts to Turkey or Lebanon. The pieces are sold on the black market to wealthy Europeans, the United States and Gulf states, al-Nabo said. 

“The [Syrian] artifacts are all over the world,” the government official remarked. “In America, Europe, and western countries, laws permit the entrance and sale of artifacts. There are a lot in Israel, Turkey, and Jordan. There are many pieces that the INTERPOL [International Criminal Police Organization], has informed us about that we were not able to return [to Syria]. We filed lawsuits in some European countries to stop the sale of looted artifacts but it did not help. Lebanon is the only country that returned smuggled antiquities back to us.”

In an attempt to counter the smuggling efforts, al-Shbib has been collecting and documenting photographs of artifacts. He has created a database that he says can be used to trace stolen items with a date and location. 

“We have no power; government, or military power to do anything,” al-Shbib said. 

He referred to a picture he found on Facebook: A civilian found an important artifact and posted the picture hoping to make a sale, listing the location and date it was found. If the artifact is sold and placed on display, it can be traced and returned to Syria. 

“If we find this piece in the years to come at a museum outside Syria, we can say this artifact belongs to Syria and use the date of the photo as evidence that it is a Syrian piece. Even if the purchaser has a certificate, the piece can be returned to Syria since there is evidence which proves it was stolen,” he said. “I am doing the impossible to try to find pictures. That is our only weapon.”


This report reflects minor changes made on 22/03/2020 at 9:52 am.

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