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Why Syria’s Ancient Objects are in Danger

This month’s strike on Krak des Chevaliers, the 12th-century Crusader castle, put UNESCO, historians and antiquities experts on edge.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

“The situation is really, really serious, and it’s so serious that at our last session we put all sites in Syria on the world danger list, which includes the ancient villages of Aleppo, Krak des Chevaliers and [the city of] Palmyra,” says Mechtild Rossler, the Paris-based deputy director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Foundation.

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“To our knowledge the ancient villages of northern Syria are untouched. But we have to put it on the list if [the potential for] danger is there. Krak des Chevaliers is the latest damage, and we were really deeply shocked, because this is one of the crucial sites of the region’s fortified architecture from the Crusades between the 11th and 13th centuries.”

Syria is one of the known “cradles” of civilization and Damascus is the oldest continually inhabited capital in the world. The country’s historic sites, including the severely damaged Great Mosque of Aleppoare some of the most important to those who travel and study the ancient world.

Rossler says the sites are in danger not only just from the government’s aerial assaults (which befell Krak des Chevaliers) and the cross fire from ground fighting (which caused a fire that torched Aleppo’s centuries-old souk) but also from looters, who are easily capable of ransacking unguarded sites and smuggling the objects into neighboring Lebanon.

On a global market for such illicit items, they fetch a high price. UNESCO has been working with Interpol’s art division to try and stem the tide of objects entering that market.

In 2012, the World Heritage Fund contacted Interpol, the World Customs Organization and the International Council of Museums to call on neighboring countries to request cooperation in stemming illicit art and artifact traffic.

The entire city of Palmyra “is an archaeological site, so these [stolen] objects are historical artifacts, and those have been included in the art database of Interpol,” Rossler says. “There’s a worldwide market for these items, and we’ve experienced that in many situations, like in Iraq. [But] among collectors, there’s a movement that they should not buy art from these sites.”

From Palmyra, she says, “There’s been a lot of illicit trafficking, and objects from Palmyra have been identified in Lebanon. We are doing a lot of work with the international police force and the art market. Pictures [of the stolen items] have been put into the Interpol database so we can prevent the looting and selling of these objects on the international market.”

UNESCO is pushing for a fund that would allow it to better protect the sites. As war slowly descends into final fronts like Damascus, whose Old City has thus far escaped relatively untouched, protection of historic artifacts could become an afterthought to daily survival.

“We need a special fund,” Rossler says. “In the past, we have had many crisis situations [where we asked for funds for] guards, for assessment missions to see what the situation on the ground was, and to prepare risk management plans.”

In this case, “the World Heritage Committee asked the UN’s director general to create a specific fund aimed at the conservation of world heritage sites in Syria. Whenever sites are on the danger list, we call on the international community to provide the funding.”

In 2012 UNESCO created an emergency “red list” of Syrian cultural objects at risk in order to prevent trafficking of cultural heritage. It also coordinates between global protection and restoration groups like the International Committee of the Blue Shield, which is the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross, and the International Federation of Library Organizations.

The organization follows guidelines set by the U.N.’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, “which means that if you have looting at any archaeological site,” Rossler says, “we can prevent that from appearing on the international market. It protects sites on the ground.”

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