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High-ranking Presentation by the Director-General to UNESCO
02/09/2013 - عدد القراءات : 5654

Ms. Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General

Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, UN envoy to Syria

Ms. Lamia Chakkour, Syrian ambassador in the UNESCO

Directors and representatives of international organizations involved in cultural heritage management and protection in Syria

Ladies and gentlemen

Syria has been home to some of the most ancient civilizations on Earth that left unparalleled antiquities all over its land given that our rivers, plains and mountains house the richest and most diverse and numerous archaeological sites in the Middle East.

This richness, nevertheless, is at stake today down to the crisis raging in the country for more than two years in that several aspects of the Syrian archaeological heritage are suffering from damage and violations. For example, a lot of old Syrian cities have been subject to damage and destruction, and some castles and archaeological buildings that are significant, not only in the history of Syria but also in the history of mankind, have been affected, as well.

Following the painful events in the country and the absence of the concerned governmental institutions and the archaeological authorities in some regions, the danger besetting the archaeological sites is escalating, and some of these sites are witnessing the most violent and dangerous attacks because of the increase of illegal and systematic excavation carried out by armed gangs of antiquities with the cooperation of hundreds of people hired from Syria and the neighboring countries, who threaten residents by force of arms so as not to interfere. Those groups know what to aim at and where to find it, which sounds the alarm on the irreparable damage that might affect a number of the most valuable historical sites in the world.

Thus, the DGAM has been making unremitting efforts to reduce the impact of the current crisis on the antiquities and has achieved success at several levels thanks to the endeavors of its cadres in all governorates. One of these achievements is protecting the holdings of all museums in Syria and transferring them to safe locations; another and the most important one is the positive results attained by cooperating with members of the local community which has led to protecting and safeguarding numerous archaeological sites.

The status quo

The map shows the archaeological sites that have been subject to violations all over Syria. Based on the available statistics, tens of damaged sites have been centered in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib in northern Syria and in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa in the east.

A. Museums:
Generally speaking, museums in Syria are in good condition, given that the DGAM has succeeded in safeguarding their holdings except for some rare cases; nonetheless, clashes have caused tangible damage to some museums.

Tangible damage has affected the architectural structure of some museums, such as Aleppo Museum and Deir ez-Zor Museum. For instance, some windows and doors were smashed, and some suspended ceilings were damaged due to explosions and mortar shells in areas adjacent to the two museums.

In addition, Hama and Maarrat Nu'man Museums as well as Museums of Folklore in Homs and Deir ez-Zor suffered physical damage as a result of clashes. Moreover, the walls of Palmyra Museum were affected after being hit by rockets fired from the neighboring orchards.
Thus, these affected places with cracked and damaged walls are in need of reconstruction and rehabilitation; consequently, the DGAM has taken some emergency measures to provide temporary protection to the museums following the damages befalling them.

  • Since the beginning of the crisis, Syrian museums have witnessed the theft of two archaeological artifacts, namely a gilt bronze statue, dating back to the Aramaean era, from Hama Museum and a stone marble piece from Apamea Museum.
  • Thieves stole historical pieces from Aleppo's Museum of Folklore, namely glassware, Baghdadi daggers, six spears and some garments.
  • 17 pieces of pottery in addition to some clay dolls were stolen from the exhibition hall of Jaabar Castle.  
  • Unconfirmed information on the theft of some of the assets of Homs Museum spread around, whereas reports from the Department of Antiquities of Homs did not verify this information although these reports indicated that there was difficulty in assessing the situation precisely. However, the department confirmed that the situation was not grave.
  • Due to the painful events endured by the city of Raqqa and the absence of governmental and cultural institutions, robbers seized six boxes, stored in Raqqa Museum's warehouse, which contain archaeological artifacts. Previously, an armed group moved three boxes containing artifacts which belong to the National Museum to an unknown location under the pretext of protecting them. However, efforts exerted by the cadres of the department have not been successful in returning those boxes so far.
  • 30 pieces of art were stolen from Maarrat Museum almost a year ago after an armed group stormed the place. The pieces included small dolls and statues made of clay and mud, broken pottery and amulets. Nevertheless, all the mosaics in the museum are safe and unscathed.
Therefore, the DGAM is coordinating with the social elites in Raqqa and Maarrat Nu'man; in addition, employees of both departments of antiquities there are working with volunteers from the local community to return those archaeological artifacts, which is very likely to happen.

B. Archaeological sites:

Some archaeological sites have turned into battlefields due to violent clashes raging in their areas which caused damage to valuable historical buildings and archaeological castles. For example, hundreds of antique shops fell prey to flaming fires in Aleppo's old souks, the minarets of both the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo and al-Omari Mosque in Daraa were destroyed, both Crac des Chevaliers castle and al-Madeeq Castle were damaged, Um Zennar Church and other churches in Homs were affected, many old buildings in Homs, Aleppo and Daraa were subject to damage and the internal wall of the western façade of the Temple of Bel as well as some of its pillars suffered damage.

Since the beginning of the painful events, the DGAM's vision has centered upon working on protecting the Syrian archaeological heritage and keeping it far away from danger as much as possible. In addition, the DGAM has been attempting to avoid using the issue of antiquities for political agendas which might affect them. Accordingly, the DGAM appeals to all parties to avoid and respect the archaeological sites and their sanctity based on its belief in the significance and sacredness of this archaeological heritage, the source of pride and world uniqueness for all Syrians, and depending upon Syria's international commitment to the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict.

Illegal excavation:
The level of danger threatening the archaeological sites is rising due to the absence of the concerned governmental institutions and the archaeological authorities in some areas. For example, several archaeological sites were subject to serious violations and fierce excavation some of which were carried out in a systematic fashion by armed gangs of antiquities, particularly in areas near borders or those witnessing violent conflicts.
  • Damage violates the sanctity of the archaeological sites in Deir ez-Zor through digs conducted by antiquities thieves who sell the discovered finds to local and foreign dealers as is the case at some sites, such as Mari, Dura Europos, Halbia, Buseira, Tell Sheikh Hamad and Tell es-Sin.
  • A lot of violations damaging the archaeological levels at Tell al-Bay'ah and other neighboring tells (hills) in Raqqa were documented.
  • Ebla site was subject to fierce excavation for some time causing the destruction of some part of the site. Efforts made by members of the local community, nevertheless, succeeded in controlling the situation temporarily. However, digs have been active during the past month.
  • Some sites within the Forgotten Cities in Idlib inscribed on the World Heritage List (Gebel al-Aala, Gebel al-Woastani and Gebel Barisha) have been subject to destruction and serious damage, in particular the unique churches they encompass. Information added that digs are being carried out at these churches, particularly towards the mihrab (niche), by antiquities gangs coming from Turkey. Kafr Oqab, according to information, is the most damaged site in the region.
  • Apamea site is considered one of the most affected sites as a result of the ongoing secret excavations at the site, which are centered around the eastern, northeastern and western regions of the city. Moreover, a comparison between two photos taken by satellite, the first of which was taken before the beginning of the crisis in Syria and the second on April 4th, 2012, shows the amount of looting and destruction Apamea site was subject to due to secret excavation.
  • The trend of illegal digs has become very common in the city of Daraa with hundreds of hired men and armed gangs of antiquities taking part in the digs inside of al-Omari Mosque and at the archaeological sites along Wadi al-Yarmouk and at Tell al-Ash'ari, which might cause irreparable damage if these digs continue at this pace.
  • Large areas of Tell Qaramel in the countryside of Aleppo were destroyed by means of heavy machinery; in addition, other sites in this region are permanently violated.
Reports from the departments of antiquities of some governorates warn against the expansion of the destruction zone engineered by organized and armed gangs of antiquities at the aforesaid sites, especially during the past three months. This destruction affects significant and pivotal sites in the history of Syria and draws attention to a probable perpetual loss of some components of the Syrian archaeological heritage.

Consequently, on 3rd July 2013, the DGAM called upon international organizations, members and heads of foreign archaeological missions, archaeologists and world intellectuals to act at once and search for efficient mechanisms that ensure putting pressure on all parties participating in destroying, looting and smuggling Syria's antiquities to stop this lamentable loss. The DGAM also asked the UNESCO to put pressure on neighboring countries to reinforce their security measures, control the borders in face of antiquities smugglers to fight trafficking in our archaeological property and combat illegal excavation to avoid the same tragedy witnessed by other Syrian archaeological sites.

Accordingly, success was the fruit of the efforts made by the cadres of the DGAM in several regions. For instance, thanks to the cooperation with the local community and the interference of the leaders of its social elites, hundreds of archaeological sites were saved from destruction and excavation (e.g. in Qamishli, northeastern Syria and Idlib and Aleppo in the north). Although in some cases joint efforts have not been successful, these cases are not dangerous or disastrous, such as the abovementioned ones given that the local community has played a key role in protecting Maarrat Nu'man Museum. In addition, the Department of Antiquities of Raqqa is still coordinating with the central administration in Damascus and receiving instructions despite the violent events in the city.

Measures taken

Following that review of the situation of the Syrian archaeological heritage which is subject to change on a daily basis, I would like to give a brief summary concerning the measures taken in order to reduce the risk and damage as much as possible:

  1. The museums were emptied of their holdings, and all archaeological artifacts were amassed in safe and secure places. In addition, burglar alarms were installed in some museums and fortresses, and the number of guards and patrols was increased.
  2. The DGAM has taken a series of steps to involve all Syrians in defending the archaeological heritage representing their history, their common memory and all that brings them together throughout history. Therefore, it has launched a national campaign to raise people's awareness on the value of their antiquities and their role in protecting them irrespective of any political or intellectual difference dividing them today. The campaign has targeted 23 million Syrians with no exception to engage them all in safeguarding ancient Syrian antiquities and cultural heritage, which they are proud of.
  3. The staff and cadres of the DGAM in all governorates are putting forth tremendous efforts and cooperating with members of local communities, mediators and social and religious and intellectual elites to protect hundreds of archaeological sites and safeguard them from the repercussions of the current events. Moreover, success rates vary from one place to another based on people's support which makes hope the dominant factor more often than not.
  4. The DGAM held a workshop on "fighting against illicit trafficking of cultural property: capacity-building and awareness-raising", 12 and 13 May 2013, to enrich the topic of illegally smuggled artifacts with the participation of representatives of all ministries and authorities involved in the protection of Syrian cultural property in addition to NGOs, members of the local community, researchers, artists and writers within the field.
  5. The DGAM has returned more than 4000 archaeological artifacts during the past year through confiscations carried out by the concerned bodies (the police, the customs, the governorate, the municipalities and other public bodies) in Damascus, Tartus, Palmyra, Homs, Hama, Deir ez-Zor, etc.
  6. The DGAM has documented the holdings of all Syrian museums electronically; in addition, a team of DGAM experts is working on the documentation process and comparing between the current situation and the previous state of the Syrian archaeological heritage. Moreover, the team is digitally archiving the DGAM's information on the status of the sites prior to the crisis and on their current situation and the damage affecting them through using images and videos shown on the internet, provided by the departments of antiquities in the governorates or sent by members of the local community from the affected areas.
  7. The team of experts is currently designing a map of the damaged cultural heritage in Syria as a step to be transformed into a digital map based on the geographic information system, which will allow specialists to identify their priorities regarding the maintenance and restoration operations in the post-crisis period. The process is supposed to take place according to work plans compatible with international standards that ensure coordination between all governmental bodies within the archaeological field and the involvement of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the process of rehabilitating the archaeological sites and national museums in the future and the enhancement of cooperation with the international partners, the local and foreign concerned authorities and the foreign archaeological expeditions working at the targeted sites
  8. The DGAM has launched its website both in Arabic and English (www.dgam.gov.sy), which is updated on a daily basis using information and news on the damage affecting the Syrian archaeological heritage during the crisis.
  1. The DGAM is currently coordinating with the international INTERPOL and sending reports on what is lost or found in neighboring countries or even published such as photos believed to be of Syrian archaeological finds which thieves of antiquities have got hold of by means of illegal excavation at remote sites. As a result, cooperation with the INTERPOL has been successful in fighting trafficking in Syrian antiquities. For example, 18 Syrian mosaic panels were confiscated at the Lebanese borders, and 73 Syrian artifacts smuggled to Lebanon to be sold by antique dealers were confiscated, as well. Thanks to the cooperation of the Antiquities Authority in Lebanon and the UNESCO Office in Beirut.
  2. The DGAM is cooperating with the international organizations in exchanging visions and information. The beginning of such cooperation was a workshop organized by ICOMOS followed by an international workshop held in Amman "to address the issue of illicit trafficking" which was initiated by UNESCO/Amman Office with the participation of representatives of archaeological authorities in the neighboring countries and international organizations that proposed a number of recommendations, one of which was completing the Emergency Red List on Syrian cultural objects.
  3. The DGAM called upon the UNESCO as regards the damage affecting the Syrian archaeological sites and demanded urging the neighboring countries to prohibit illicit trafficking in Syrian archaeological heritage.
  4. The archaeological authorities are still working on signing the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention and UNIDROIT Convention.

What we are supposed to do urgently can be as follows:
  1. Supporting the attempts of the archaeological authorities in issuing an international resolution by the UN Security Council that bans illicit trafficking in the Syrian cultural property (following the Iraqi example), which will yield positive results as regards both the issue of fighting smuggling and gangs of antiquities and the issue of returning the smuggled and stolen artifacts in the future.
  2. Putting pressure on neighboring countries to control their borders and close them against smugglers and gangs of antiquities.
  3. The economic sanctions have affected Syria and the archaeological sector negatively and brought communication with foreign missions to a halt – which means finding a solution to this problem is a prerequisite in order for these missions to fulfill their commitments and pay the guards of the archaeological sites their dues for their service over the past two years.
  4. International organizations and foreign missions can do the DGAM a great favor through activating exchange of information and providing the directorate through modern technology with satellite images and data on the affected archaeological sites, for instance. The perfect examples of that are the satellite images of Apamea, taken prior to and after the beginning of the crisis, which show the extent of the damage and destruction befalling the site. In addition, such information is considered valuable and very supportive to the efforts of the archaeological institution as regards documentation and protection for the time being and restoration and rehabilitation in the future.
  5. The DGAM calls upon the UNESCO and the organizations concerned with preserving the archaeological heritage in the world to consider the safeguarding of the Syrian cultural heritage as a top priority in the post-crisis period and to resume the implementation of the resolutions of Amman's workshop.
  6. Committing to the establishment of a fund to save the Syrian cultural heritage sites inscribed on the World Heritage List so as to enable the execution of the tasks identified in the action plan of the short term scenario.
The main concern of the DGAM at this stage is to protect the Syrian cultural heritage with all its components and to keep it safe as much as possible since it belongs to all Syrians irrespective of their views and political orientations, which the DGAM has never interfered with in that its battle is about the protection of the history, heritage and memory of a nation.

Consequently, the DGAM has been attempting to unify the visions of all Syrians concerning the antiquities to defend and protect them as they represent what has always brought our people together, to urge the Syrians to take responsibility and take part in safeguarding the archaeological heritage against theft, damage and obliteration and to create some sort of a feeling in 23 million Syrians that any attack on their antiquities is an attack on their civilization, their national identity and their shared memory. Thanks to that vision, the DGAM's performance has been professional, scientific and effective, and its cadres have remained united in all governorates, and their efforts have resulted in success in many cases and regions.

Moreover, I feel proud of being the director of this institution which has managed to mobilize all energies despite all risks; in addition, I am proud of my colleagues who never hesitate to report for duty every morning to protect the antiquities of their country at a time when a simple step can be too dangerous to take. This is one of the moments that unfolds the greatness of our country. Although the dangers besetting the Syrian archaeological heritage are growing beyond our capabilities and limited resources, they cannot by any means defeat our will.

Thus, we call on the international community to provide assistance and support to the local efforts; furthermore, the whole world should bear in mind that the Syrian archaeological heritage is part of the world cultural heritage of humanity and that the loss of any of its components is a loss to all mankind. Hence, the time has come to take action before it is too late to protect our antiquities against a disaster that is painful for all.         

Causing damage to the heritage of any country is harmful to the spirit and identity of its people. Unfortunately, Syria is lamenting its people and history today, and its antiquities are waiting for some international action that will rescue a civilization worthy of life and respect, without which the world will unquestionably grow gloomier.

The current events in Syria today invite all of us to do our best together to put an end to this damage besetting the human cultural heritage. In spite of the bad circumstances experienced by Syria, we are not going to give up, and our participation today comes as a result of our faith in our ability as Syrians who love Syria as well as its great history to save our culture and find out about those who steal our antiquities and who sell and buy them and who destroy and attempt to wipe out Syria's memory as a land that has brought together numerous civilizations and thoughts. Together, you and we are going to reclaim our heritage and rebuild our damaged temples, churches and mosques.

Finally, on behalf of all of those whom I represent, I would like to thank the UNESCO for calling to this ad hock meeting as well as for its efforts in preserving the Syrian cultural heritage. Besides, I would like to stress the need to unify our views to overcome the current situation through separating and protecting the cultural heritage from politics and its repercussions.

Prof. Dr. Maamoun ABDULKARIM
Director General of Antiquities and Museums of Syria

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