Devastation Of Syria’s Culture And Antiquities ‘The Price Of War’

May 9th, 2014

Last month the Syrian Arab Army recaptured the Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers, which was reportedly damaged during air strikes in 2013.



Smoke emerges from the castle at Krak des Chavaliers in Syria - August 18, 2013.

Credit Syria963 / Wikimedia Commons

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has expressed concern since the civil war began that the conflict could be devastating to the country’s important cultural sites.Joshua Landis, the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the blog Syria Comment, says the town of Maaloula was retaken by the Syrian government Wednesday.

“One of the last three towns where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken today,” Landis says. “The town has been emptied out. Two of the great monasteries that had been alive there since the Sixth Century are in ruins, [with] big holes through their domes.”

Landis says the destruction of Syria’s cultural underpinnings is similar to what happened in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, but on a much larger scale.

“There is no authority here. Syria was one of the jewels of the crown of the Middle East,” Landis says. “The most beautiful Crusader castle, Krak des Chevaliers, undisturbed, has been bombed by both sides because rebels took up and made it a stronghold. The government bombed it. It makes you want to cry, but I guess that’s the price of war.”


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Egypt’s devastating museum looting of 1,000 artifacts is the latest casualty amid turmoil

August 21st, 2013

CAIRO - As violent clashes roiled Egypt, looters made away with a prized 3,500-year-old limestone statue, ancient beaded jewelry and more than 1,000 other artifacts in the biggest theft to hit an Egyptian museum in living memory.

ANCBS posts images of objects Looted from the Malawi Museum in al-Minya, Egypt

August 21st, 2013

Go to

U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield Meeting Wednesday, April 10th

April 8th, 2013

We will be joined by the Working Group on the Protection of Syrian Heritage in Conflict, organized by the Smithsonian Institution, ARCH, and Blue Shield Austria

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013, from 1:30 pm – 4:30 pm

Smithsonian Institution

S. Dillon Ripley Center Lecture Hall (3rd level down)

1100 Jefferson Drive SW (entry is between the Smithsonian Castle and the Freer Museum)

Washington, DC

Metro Stop: Smithsonian (Blue/Orange Line)

Admission is free and open to anyone, but please RSVP to Paul Wegener at

Speakers will include:

Dr. Nancy Wilkie, President, USCBS

Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, DePaul University College of Law, USCBS board                   

Dr. Laurie Rush, USCBS board

Dick Jackson, USCBS board

Cori Wegener, Smithsonian Institution, USCBS founding president

Karl Habsburg, President, Association of National Committees of the Blue Shield, Blue Shield Austria               

and  Dr. Richard Kurin, Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, Smithsonian Institution


Syria Official Warns Of Trafficking In Antiquities

February 14th, 2013



AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — A Syrian government official warned Wednesday of rampant trafficking in antiquities from his country and appealed for U.N. help in halting the illicit trade that has flourished during the nearly 23-month-long civil war.

Syria’s turmoil has increasingly threatened the country’s rich archaeological heritage but the issue of smuggling artifacts has taken a back seat to more dramatic images as some of the most significant sites got caught in the crossfire between regime forces and rebels.

President Bashar Assad’s troops have shelled rebel-held neighborhoods, smashing historic mosques, churches and souks, or markets. Looters have stolen artifacts from archaeological excavations and, to a lesser extent, museums.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of the government’s antiquities department, warned of the smuggling at a UNESCO-sponsored workshop in Amman, Jordan, which brought together regional antiquities directors, customs and police officials, as well as international protection agencies.

He expressed hope that the Security Council would issue a resolution that would ban trading in stolen antiquities from Syria, and underscored that his nation’s cultural heritage must be preserved without taking political sides in the conflict.

“We want a united front to stop the destruction,” Abdulkarim told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the gathering. “These acts are not only attacks on Syria’s heritage, they are attacks on the world’s heritage.”

Among the artifacts stolen from Syria is an 8th century B.C. Aramaic bronze statue with gold overlay taken from the Hama museum and now listed by Interpol. Byzantine mosaics from the Roman city of Apamea near Aleppo were bulldozed and removed.

Meanwhile, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture Francesco Bandarin said in Paris on Friday that he has “information that some (Syrian cultural) items are beginning to appear on the market . it has already been a few months.” He did not elaborate.

Experts consider Syria home to some of the most important cultural sites in human history, with six of them designated World Heritage sites by UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural and educational agency.

The Jordan workshop focused on a plan to help safeguard the Syrian antiquities, according to Anna Paolini, UNESCO’s representative to Jordan. She said the plan included better training of antiquities and border personnel and coordination with the local community.

Paolini pointed to an archaeologist working via Skype and online with Syrian staff to assess damages, pack and label material for removal to secure spaces as a model that could be repeated to “mitigate damages and loss.” She did not wish to name the archaeologist, because of security concerns.

Abdulkarim acknowledged that fighting between the regime and rebels has damaged some of the country’s most iconic treasures.

World Heritage site Crak des Chavaliers near the Lebanese border, one of the most important military castles in history dated between 11th and 13th century, has been exposed to shelling and gunfire. Shelling also has reportedly caused extensive damage to historic houses in the ancient city of Bosra in the south, once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia.

Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, has witnessed some of the conflict’s most brutal destruction. Its 12th century Ummayad mosque and 13th century citadel gatehouse have been caught in the crosshairs of the conflict.

These monuments can all be repaired, Abdulkarim said, unlike those seven ancient markets incinerated in Aleppo’s storied centuries-old covered souk during fierce fighting last October. The fire burnt 500 shops, tearing through wooden doors and scorching stalls and vaulted passageways.

Because of the fighting, most Syrian museums have removed their priceless treasures, storing them in “safe places,” Abdulkarim said, without elaborating.

Still unearthed treasures, however, are under constant threat because of the ongoing violence, he said.

The antiquities chief was careful neither to blame government troops nor rebels for looting, which ranged from what he called small-scale “tomb robbing” to the bulldozing of Byzantine mosaics in the Roman city of Apamea near Aleppo. He instead blamed “mafias” of sophisticated smugglers familiar with the location of the country’s numerous treasures.

Abdulkarim praised Jordanian police for their recovery over the weekend of Syrian artifacts and called on other neighboring countries to tighten controls. He said the stolen items included clay pottery, figurines and other undated artifacts.

He also asked UNESCO to appeal to Turkey and Iraq to enact stricter measures to prevent the smuggling of artifacts across their borders. Turkey has strained ties with the Assad regime, while Iraq’s porous frontier with Syria is difficult to monitor.

Abdulkarim warned against his country becoming like another Iraq, where the Baghdad Museum and many archaeological sites were plundered following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein.

“We don’t want the world to go through the Iraq experience again,” Abdulkarim said.

Timbuktu Update

February 1st, 2013

30 January 2013

13.00, Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tombouctou Manuscripts Project
Huma (Institute for humanities in Africa)
University of Cape Town

Since the start of this week there are reports about the destruction of library buildings and book collections in Timbuktu. It sounds as if the written heritage of the town went up in flames. According to our information this is not the case at all. The custodians of the libraries worked quietly throughout the rebel occupation of Timbuktu to ensure the safety of their materials. A limited number of items have been damaged or stolen, the infrastructure neglected and furnishings in the Ahmad Baba Institute library looted but from all our local sources – all intimately connected with the public and private collections in the town - there was no malicious destruction of any library or collection.

By Sunday January 27 the Ansar Dine rebels had fled Timbuktu.  The French army and its Malian partners entered the town on that day.

One of the first reports on Monday morning out of the town was that a library and books had been set alight.  A Sky News journalist, Alex Crawford, embedded with the French forces, reported in the evening from inside the new Ahmad Baba building, which is opposite the Sankore mosque.  This building was officially opened in 2009 and is the product of a partnership between South Africa and Mali.  It is meant to be a state-of-the-art archival, conservation, and research facility. Images showed empty manuscript enclosures strewn on the floor, some burnt leather pouches, and a small pile of ashes.  She reported that over 25,000 mss had been burned or disappeared. Additional images showed her going down to the vault of the archives and looking at empty display cabinets. No signs of fire could be seen.

The mayor of Timbuktu, Hallè Ousmane, based around 800 km away, in Bamako, was quoted in various media reports that a library building and manuscripts were torched by fleeing rebels. There is no other evidence but the word of the mayor. News spread to international media and the mayor’s words were reported as hard fact.

We tried all of Monday, since these reports appeared, to contact colleagues in Timbuktu but without success. The town was in a communications and electricity blackout since around January 20, we were told by Malian colleagues; no eyewitness reports had been coming out of the town for more than a week at this point.

Sources from Bamako in the evening reported that Mohamed Ibrahim Cissé, President of the Chairman of the Board of the Cercle of Timbuktu still confirmed, on France 24, that the new Ahmed Baba Institute building had been burned by the Ansar Dine before fleeing.

By Monday night we finally managed to contact our colleague, Dr Mohamed Diagayeté, senior researcher at the Ahmad Baba Institue, now based in Bamako. He heard much the same reports that we heard. However, he added that the majority of the mss. of the Institute was still stored in the old building – opened in 1974 and on the other side of the town, from the new building.  He told us that the latest news about the new building, as of eight days before the flight of the Ansar Dine, was that the building had not been destroyed. He said that around 10,000 mss had been stored in the new building since there was no more space for the mss in the old building.  They were placed in trunks in the vaults of the new building.  Upstairs, where the restoration was taking place and boxes were made there were only a few mss.  After seeing Sky News footage, he says that the images were of the few mss upstairs waiting to be worked on by the conservators.

However, by Tuesday morning, Dr. Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs and founding director of the Ahmad Baba Institute, told Time, that before the rebel take-over the manuscripts: “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”

Finally, the journalist Markus M. Haeflinger, writing in Neue Zuercher Zeitung this morning, reports on his interview with the previous and present directors of the Ahmad Baba Institute in Bamako, on how the larger part of the Ahmad Baba collection was hidden and even transported out of Timbuktu during the crisis.

The protection of the cultural and intellectual heritage of this region needs to be enhanced and promoted. The abandonment of the security of Timbuktu nine months ago, the flight of archivists and researchers, and the closure of libraries should not be repeated. We remain in contact with our colleagues in Mali and are keen to establish precisely which manuscripts were damaged, destroyed, or stolen.

War looters threaten Syria’s heritage

December 27th, 2012

Financial Times December 27, 2012

By Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut

In the destructive chaos of the civil war, Syria’s archaeological heritage is disappearing piece by piece across its borders as smuggling of looted antiquities accelerates.

Unesco has raised the alarm at the damage wrought to the world heritage sites, including the ancient Umayyad mosque and historic vaulted souk of Aleppo, much of which were burnt in fierce fighting between armed rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Since the outbreak of the uprising 21 months ago, there have been reports of antiquities being stolen from sites that previously were well guarded. But now, according to a man involved in the trade, it is becoming more systematic.

“It’s very similar to Iraq,” he said. In both countries, he explained, the looting became “more organised” as time went by.

Syria is unusually rich in archaeological sites; it was at the frontier of the Roman and Parthian empires, and contains traces of all the important civilisations that had a presence in the Middle East going back to the earliest settled cultures. It is also unusual in having churches and mosques which have been in continuous use since the early days of Christianity and Islam.

Artefacts are dug up or stolen from the many sites, smuggled across the Lebanese and Turkish borders, authenticated by experts and then sold on to clients from around the world, including the US, according to people involved in the trade.

It is potentially big business. A small statue is worth $30,000, the trader said.

Another man involved in the trafficking interviewed this year said he was offered an object for $300,000.

A video posted on the internet purportedly taken in the ancient city of Palmyra gives an indication of the ravages wrought by the illegal trade. It shows several stone sculptures apparently stolen from the site being loaded on to a pickup truck.

Initially, the looting happened in an ad hoc manner, sometimes with the apparent collusion of security services.

One activist interviewed in the ancient city of Apamea said that excavating and selling antiquities there, mainly mosaics, had become a rare source of income for ordinary people in an economy ravaged by war.

“People don’t have jobs,” said the activist. “Poor farmers, when they find something worth $1,000 or $500, they get very happy. Some discovered precious things and now got very rich; others just found things which might just get food.”

Now however, according to the trader, much like the country itself, the trafficking is increasingly coming under the control of rebels.

“The FSA [Free Syrian Army] are controlling it in a bold and brave way,” he said. “But now they want weapons, not money.”

In a conflict estimated to have killed more than 40,000 people, it is hard to focus on buildings and objects.

Nonetheless, concerned heritage experts have started a Facebook group to monitor the impact of fighting, shelling and looting on Syria’s tapestry of historic sites.

“The destruction of things that have not been studied is like burning pages in the book of history,” said Rodrigo Martin, a member of the group. “Now we’re seeing total war everywhere we have to be really, really concerned.”

Professor Maamoun Abdul Karim, head of the Syrian authority for antiquities and museums, acknowledged the problem but said his agency had increased protection of sites by working with local communities. He pleaded with neighbouring countries to crack down on the illegal trade.

“We want to spread our message to the countries around us: be stronger and more protected against thieves,” he said. “We have to ignore our differences and be more focused on our heritage for the whole area, and for humanity.”

The trader however was unsentimental. “There is no place for feeling in business,” he said.

Culture in the Cross Hairs

December 3rd, 2012

New York Times, December 2, 2012

On July 7, in the wake of the destruction of the sacred shrines in Timbuktu — a Unesco World Heritage site — the spokesman of Ansar Dine, one of the Islamist groups controlling northern Mali, declared to the press that “there is no world heritage. It does not exist. Infidels must not get involved in our business.”

This statement captures the challenge we face. For the spokesmen of Ansar Dine, culture is narrowly defined. It is exclusive and static. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization stands for a different vision. Culture has universal meaning. When cultural heritage is attacked anywhere in the world, like the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo and World Heritage sites damaged by severe bombing in Syria, each of us is shocked; this is a loss to all humanity.

Some cultural sites have an outstanding universal value — they belong to all and must be protected by all. Let’s be clear. We are not just talking about stones and building. This is about values, identities and belonging. Destroying culture hurts societies for the long term. It deprives them of collective memory banks as well as precious social and economic assets.

Warlords know this. They target culture because it strikes to the heart and because it has powerful media value in an increasingly connected world. We saw this in the wars in the former Yugoslavia, where libraries were often burned first. In Timbuktu, extremists are attacking the symbols of a tolerant and erudite Islam to impose their own narrow, fraudulent vision.

Culture is not hit as collateral damage. Culture stands on the frontline of conflicts, deliberately targeted to fuel hatred and block reconciliation. This is why we must start seeing cultural heritage as an international security issue. The question is how do we stand up for it.

For Unesco, we must act at three levels.

First, after years of efforts to build stronger legal instruments, we must do more to implement them and strengthen the capacities of states to do so. We have today a comprehensive set of legally binding international treaties to protect culture — the 1954 convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict, the 1970 Unesco convention against illicit trafficking of cultural property, and the 1972 World Heritage Convention, whose 40th anniversary we celebrate this year.

Each of these sends the messages: States have an obligation to protect their heritage, and not everything is allowed in war.

This is already an achievement, but in a world changing quickly, legal texts will never be as fast as a rocket. We need renewed leadership to strengthen national capacities and awareness. This means enhancing our work with museums, customs authorities, the police and art dealers.

Unesco is helping Mali to undertake damage assessment and reconstruction, and to secure museum collections. This means transmitting geographical coordinates of protected sites to military forces and recalling their obligation to keep this heritage a “safe place.” Most soldiers have never heard of the cultural conventions — they need training; they need simple and accurate information. All of this calls for more resources and experts on the ground.

Implementing legal texts means also bringing cultural war crimes to justice. Already in 2001, the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia included the destruction of cultural heritage in its case regarding the 1991 attack against the Croatian port of Dubrovnik. Today, the destruction of cultural heritage is part of the debates in the U.N. Security Council about the situation in Syria. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, declared that the destruction of Timbuktu’s shrines was indeed “a war crime.” The world must now act accordingly.

Second, we must build stronger “coalitions for culture” through tighter coordination with all partners involved, including armed forces, Interpol, the World Customs Organization and other actors, such as international auction houses.

This is delicate work. Attracting too much attention to culture can expose it to new risks. But the significant results we got after the museum of Baghdad was pillaged in 2003 showed what broad cooperation can do. No single agency can succeed alone. This is why I contacted the coalition of states to urge all parties to protect Libya’s cultural heritage during the military intervention last year. Today, we are teaming up with Norway to safeguard the manuscripts held in the museum of Bamako.

Lastly, the best way to protect culture in conflict is to make the most of it to prevent conflicts, and make it a pillar of peace building. Unesco works across the globe to harness the power of culture to bring people together and foster reconciliation. I saw this personally when Unesco helped restore the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, destroyed during the war in the 1990s. We saw the same power during the restoration of the Koguryio Tombs complex in North Korea, undertaken with the financial support of South Korea.

This might sound high-minded compared to the terrible news we hear every day from conflict zones. And it is true that culture alone is not enough to build peace. But without culture, peace cannot be lasting. The world thought big when the convention was adopted in 1972. We need to think big once again, to protect culture under attack. We often hear that protecting culture is a luxury better left for another day, that people must come first. The fact is, protecting culture is protecting people — it is about protecting their way of life and providing them with essential resources to rebuild when war ends. This is why, for culture also, there is a responsibility to protect.

Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco, will discuss “Protecting Culture in Times of War” at the Forum for New Diplomacy convened by the IHT and the Académie Diplomatique Internationale in Paris on Dec. 3.


War Puts Syrian Antiquities At ‘Heritage Sites’ In Danger

October 9th, 2012

Rasha Elass, National Public Radio

October 8, 2012

Syria is awash in major archaeological sites, several recognized as “world heritage sites” by UNESCO. Some of the most famous of these have now been damaged or even largely destroyed in the war between the government and rebel forces.

U.S. Blue Shield Statement on the Destruction of Syria’s Cultural Heritage

August 24th, 2012


Recent media reports, as well as first-hand reports from Syria posted to social media and other Internet sources, recount the killing and wounding of innocent civilians and the alarming destruction and looting of cultural heritage sites during the current civil war in Syria. Some of these sites are designated World Heritage Sites of outstanding universal significance under the 1972 World Heritage Convention. Other sites appear to be at imminent risk.

While admonishing all parties to the current Syrian conflict to respect cultural sites and prevent further damage, the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield seeks to remind the Syrian government of its obligations under the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, to which Syria is a State Party. These obligations include avoiding the targeting of cultural sites, unless excused by military necessity, and, more important, avoiding the use of cultural sites in such a way as to expose them to harm during armed conflict. It appears that these obligations have been violated through the use of cultural and historical sites, such as the Roman city of Apamea, the Crusader fortress at Crac des Chevaliers, and the archaeological site of Palmyra, as bases for military activities. This makes them a target for military attack and exposes them to significant danger. Inexcusable use of cultural sites could be the basis for war crimes violations and charges, as was seen in the criminal tribunals and convictions of former Yugoslav military leaders after the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Also alarming are reports of large-scale thefts of cultural objects from archaeological and historic sites and museums and the reported sale of these objects on the international market. Those who would deal in such objects should be aware that existing legislation and legal mechanisms prohibit the trade in looted and stolen cultural objects. For example, legislation in two of the largest market nations, the United States and the United Kingdom, provide for criminal punishment of those who knowingly deal in such objects and for forfeiture of the objects themselves. These include the United Kingdom’s Dealing in Cultural Objects Offences Act and the United States’ National Stolen Property Act. In addition, U.S. sanctions put into effect against Syria state that “All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person, … of the Government of Syria are blocked and may not be transferred, … or otherwise dealt in.” OFAC regulation EO 13582 of August 17, 2011, Section 1(a),

The cultural heritage of Syria is among the most valuable in the world, spanning from the beginnings of civilization through the Roman, Crusader, Medieval Islamic and Ottoman periods. It is the duty of all nations and all people to protect and preserve this heritage for future generations. It is particularly the responsibility of both the Syrian regime and the rebel forces to honor international law and the interests of the Syrian people in preserving their shared cultural heritage.

U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield

24 August 2012


Corine Wegener,, 612-870-3293 or 612-839-7654