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There’s More to Syrian Archaeology Than Palmyra

Syria is home to millennia of human history. Archaeologists and local fans are working all over the country to try to preserve those artifacts.
The Mosque of Abraham in the Citadel of Aleppo.

The Mosque of Abraham in the Citadel of Aleppo.

Some five years into its violent civil war, Syria remains a hotbed of archaeological exploration. Such exploration involves perhaps a good deal more danger than those archaeologists envisioned when they were in graduate school. Staffers and friends of the Syrian government’s museums agency have faced armed looters, crossed active battlefields, and gone undercover as antiquities buyers, all in an effort to protect historically important artifacts and buildings, according to interviews conducted by the volunteer organization Heritage for Peace.

And they’re not just risking their lives in Palmyra, the ancient city where, last year, ISIS destroyed two temples and a monumental arch; the fighting has threatened archaeological treasures all around Syria, which is home to six World Heritage sites. As of December, 15 staff members and site guards from the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums have been killed in the war. “They care about it enough to risk their lives,” says Emma Cunliffe, a consultant for Heritage for Peace and an archaeologist with the University of Oxford.

Pacific Standard talked with Cunliffe recently about the Heritage for Peace interviews, which she hopes will highlight the importance of Syria’s archaeological heritage to Syrians — and not just to outsiders who have garnered attention with flashy projects, like the 3-D printed replica of the demolished Palmyra Arch of Triumph.

In addition, Cunliffe recently published a paper about whether those who participated in archaeological destruction might one day be brought to trial. Although different in type from crimes against people, razing old cities and dynamiting ancient arches may still be considered crimes against humanity. We talk about why.

What artifacts are in Syria? From what time period do they date?

Because it’s in such an important location — facing the Mediterranean, facing Asia, facing Turkey, and then also so near that land bridge to Africa — so many different amazing parts of history have happened there. You’ve got the first cities, the first writing, some of the earliest law codes. The Romans passed through there, [as did] the Ottoman Empire.

There are sites referred to in the Bible, but also in Jewish literature. There are some of the earliest sites that are quite sacred to Islam, mosques founded where the Prophet Muhammad is supposed to have kneeled. So many sites that are significant to so many people.

Why would damaging these sites be considered a crime against humanity?

The Rome Statute, which is the legal framework that governs the International Criminal Court, has a clause that does specifically prohibit damage to cultural property. The director general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has said that she feels that some of [the destruction in Syria] certainly would be considered a war crime. There’s also been some new research by the United Nations’ Office of Human Rights High Commission looking at how the destruction of cultural heritage is a violation of international human rights law.

There’s quite a strong body of evidence about the ways in which cultural heritage is linked to ethnic cleansing, for example.

What do you mean?

Cultural heritage and people are often killed together. Putting Jews in their synagogues and burning them in World War II, for example, or killing people in Bosnia and Herzegovina and then bulldozing the mosque and putting the rubble of the sacred buildings into the same graves as the people.

Besides Palmyra, what sites in Syria are under threat from the war?

There are hundreds. All of the World Heritage sites are damaged to varying degrees. Aleppo is probably the worst, not Palmyra. And it was an inhabited town that some estimates say has been occupied continuously for 7,000 years.

Bosra had fighting all over the city, with damage to three buildings and several streets, as of the report almost a year ago.

Photo showing archaeologist Emma Cunliffe

Emma Cunliffe.

 There’s the Ancient Villages, which is 40 abandoned villages that are all over 1,000 years old and scattered across the countryside. A lot of those have been damaged by fighting, by looting. Some of them have been re-occupied because these are people who have nowhere else to go. Some have just been demolished.

A lot of sites aren’t necessarily even listed. The buildings in Syria, they’re all so old. There are mosques all over the place that people still worship in today that are 1,200 years old.

If they’re caught, do you think the international community really will prosecute people for their role in destroying artifacts in Syria? Won’t lawyers be focused on crimes against people first?

If a guy burgled somebody and then killed them, you wouldn’t take him to court for the murder, and then take him to court for the burglary. You would take him to court, list all of his crimes, and then the sentence would depend on how many crimes he committed. People responsible for destroying cultural heritage are often also responsible for attacking civilians.

That’s certainly what happened at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The people they brought to trial there for destroying the World Heritage site of Dubrovnik were also tried for other human rights violations, such as the shelling of civilians.

Why did Heritage for Peace try so hard to get these stories about the difficulties Syrians have faced trying to protect local archaeological sites?

There are lots of reasons. One is because, when you read a lot of these stories in the media, they do very much have a focus on the site and forget it’s very much about the people. I think it’s important to draw the attention back to the people, especially when it is so important to them that they are risking their lives.

Archaeologists often get the criticism that all we do is talk about stones when people are dying and there’s a humanitarian crisis. To me, it’s all part of the same thing. To try to separate them is foolish. That’s why I wanted to get these people’s stories across, to show how much they care about it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.