Report documents severe damage to Syrian heritage and museums

The report that monitors looted antiquities says former Syrian defence minister moved thousands of relics to the UAE.

Recaptured archeological site of Palmyra
Damaged artefacts stand inside the museum in the historical city of Palmyra [File: EPA]

A joint report by German and Syrian organisations has documented severe damage to Syria’s historical heritage and antiquities.

The report by the Gerda Henkel Foundation and the Paris-based Syrian Society for the Protection of Antiquities monitored 29 museums and places of worship that have suffered various damage due to military, aerial and ground bombardments – including the museums of Maarat al-Numan, Palmyra and Raqqa.

The report, compiled by Syrian academic Sheikmos Ali, also called for an investigation into the transfer of 405 boxes of antiquities to Dubai by former Defence Minister Mustafa Tlass when he left Syria in 2011. The boxes, the report said, contained thousands of looted artefacts that had been smuggled from Syria.

The report said Tlass, who died in Paris in 2017, had obtained most of these pieces illegally, contradicting his claim that he had obtained official approval issued by the Syrian Ministry of Culture, which included allowing them to be shipped to the United Arab Emirates.

The report said 29 museums and places of worship had been subjected to various damage due to the civil war, including the museums of Maarat al-Numan, Palmyra, and Raqqa, which have been severely damaged.

It also dealt with the widespread looting of Syrian archaeological sites, noting that 40,635 artefacts have been stolen from museums, warehouses and places of worship since 2011.

Museums looted and destroyed

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, museums have been subjected to vandalism, looting, bombing and destruction.

With the deteriorating security in many cities and towns, many museums have been robbed or looted, while others have been bombed.

According to the report, the long-term damage inflicted on Syrian museums is worse than that of Iraqi museums, whose cultural and historical riches were severely damaged during the 2003 US invasion, and later, during the rule of ISIL, also known as ISIS.

The Palmyra Museum, which was founded in 1961, was hit by Russian or Syrian air raids in 2015 and was partially destroyed. ISIL fighters subsequently destroyed a number of its contents, including mummies and statues.

The museum contained 12,000 artefacts, and despite the number and nature of the looted antiquities not known at present, the report states that 3,450 of the artefacts were looted.

Northwest of Palmyra, the report also documented damage to the Archaeological Museum in Idlib, which included, upon its opening in 1987, important art collections extending to the pre-history and Ottoman period.

The museum was subjected to several missile attacks in 2015 and 2016, and many of its contents were partially looted or partially destroyed, especially the archive. This museum included 15,000 artefacts, of which 5,844 pieces were looted.

The report called on the Syrian General Department of Antiquities and Museums to make a detailed report on the current status of each museum and its contents, and to build a digital database so that each part is subject to a scientifically detailed inventory list according to the standards set by international museums.

It also called for detailed research that includes all possible information to know the exact number of looted antiquities and ethnography in each museum, considering that such research will be crucial for Interpol and other international institutions to document stolen objects if they appear in art and smuggling antiquities.

Finally, the report called for an investigation into the transfer of thousands of antiquities to Dubai by Tlass when he left Syria.

Source: Al Jazeera