Syrian Civil War Causing 'Catastrophic' Damage to Archaeological Sites

Report says some of the world's most valuable treasures under threat from widespread looting, bombardment and deliberate destruction by Islamic militants.

A view of Aleppo's historical citadel, which has been extensively damaged.
A view of Aleppo's historical citadel, which has been extensively damaged.Credit: Reuters

War, looting and wanton destruction have caused "catastrophic" damage to Syria's irreplaceable archeological sites, according to a new report. The findings of the report were published by the Washington Post.

Four of the six sites examined via satellite imagery – all nominated by Syria for UNESCO World Heritage status – have suffered extensive damage, according to the report, which was released last week by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In particular, the report found evidence of widespread looting, described as "virtually unprecedented” in modern history by Boston University archaeologist Michael Danti.

Among the sites under threat are the remains of a Mesopotamian trading post, a 4,500-year city that housed thousands of cuneiform tablets and an ancient town with a chapel known for containing the world’s oldest depictions of Jesus.

The study, which will be followed by a report on damage done to the country’s other six proposed World Heritage sites, identifies the 3rd century B.C. city of Dura-Europos as the most affected by looting.

Located on the west bank of the Euphrates River, Dura-Europos was settled by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians. It houses a well-preserved synagogue and an ancient chapel with paintings of Jesus thought to be produced in 235 A.D.

“The level of destruction of archaeological sites in Syria since the uprising began has been catastrophic," said Charles E. Jones, an expert on Middle East antiquities at Pennsylvania State University. Given that so many areas of the country contain ancient artifacts, he said, it is “hardly surprising that this has happened as the chaos has deepened.”

Some of the damage, such as that in the eastern city of Raqqa, was likely due to demolitions by Islamic State militants, rather than from either fighting or looting, according to the report.

Founded in 300 B.C., Raqqa is the capital of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate, which spans territory in Syria and Iraq. During medieval times, Raqqa briefly served as the capital of an Islamic empire that stretched from central Asia to North Africa.

All sides to the Syrian war, from Islamic State militants to government forces and desperate civilians, seem to be participating in the looting, with smuggling rings spiriting away the items to Europe and other areas.

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