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Photo of Free Syrian Army fighters walking with their weapons in the Umayyad mosque of Old Aleppo.

Free Syrian Army fighters walk through rubble at Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque in December 2013.

Photograph by Molhem Barakat, Reuters/Corbis

Andrew Curry

for National Geographic

Published September 3, 2014

The ancient city of Dura-Europos sits on a bluff above the Tigris River a few miles from Syria's border with Iraq, its mud-brick walls facing a bleak expanse of desert. Just a year ago the city's precise grid of streets—laid down by Greek and Roman residents 2,000 years ago—was largely intact. Temples, houses, and a substantial Roman outpost were preserved for centuries by the desert sands.

"It stood out for its remarkable preservation," says Simon James, an archaeologist at the U.K.'s University of Leicester who spent years studying the site's Roman garrison. "Until now." (See before and after pictures of archaeological site looting.)

Satellite images of the site released by the U.S. State Department in June show a shocking picture of devastation. In the past year, as fighting continued to rage between the government of President Bashar al Assad's troops and rebels—including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—the site has been ravaged by industrial-scale looting.

Photo of the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo in 2009.
Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque is seen here in 2009, before being damaged in the civil unrest.
Photograph by Bryan Denton, Corbis

"It's a lunar landscape of spoil heaps," says James. "Obviously, the looters were bankrolled to a massive extent to do something like this."

It may be too late to save Dura-Europos, but archaeologists and activists are scrambling to preserve what's left of Syria's rich history, which stretches back more than 10,000 years. The efforts are focused on training locals to save ancient monuments and museum collections in the midst of a war zone.

Organizations including the University of Pennsylvania's Cultural Heritage Center, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and Heritage for Peace, a network of volunteers and activists based in Spain, have been holding workshops to train Syrian archaeologists, curators, and activists in "first aid for objects and sites," says Emma Cunliffe, a consultant specializing in heritage protection during conflicts.

In the midst of a war that has killed more than 190,000 people so far, millennia-old ruins and dusty museums may not seem like a priority.

But archaeologists say that preserving Syria's past is important if the country is to recover someday from the ravages of civil war. Cultural tourism was a mainstay of the Syrian economy before 2011, says John Russell, a State Department consultant who helps countries protect their archaeological treasures. "It's important that we preserve as much as possible of this economic asset for Syrians in the future."

Satellite photo of Dura Europos in June 2012.
These two satellite images document the scale of destruction that looters inflicted on Dura-Europos between June 2012 (above) and April 2014 (below).
Photograph by DigitalGlobe Inc
Satellite photo of Dura Europos in April 2014.

Learning to Save History

At a recent workshop held in Turkey, near the Syrian border, curators and restoration experts taught Syrians emergency conservation techniques, such as wrapping mosaics and ceramics in Tyvek, a tough, lightweight plastic used in construction, before burying or sandbagging them. The workshop participants left Turkey with supplies of Tyvek and other hard-to-come-by items, like museum-grade glue.

"It should tell you something about the commitment of these people," says Brian Daniels, director of research at the University of Pennsylvania's Cultural Heritage Center in Philadelphia. "They got outside Syria safely and then went back."

Back to places like the museum at Maarra al Numan in Idlib Province, which houses a priceless collection of fragile mosaics from Syria's late Christian and Byzantine period. Over the past year the museum has come under repeated assault, suffering damage from barrel bombs and raids by the Islamic State (also called ISIS or ISIL) and Al Nusra rebels.

"Locals are saying, This is most important for us to save, because it represents us," says Daniels. But given the dangerous conditions in the country, options for protecting such collections are limited.

"All we can do is stabilize, conceal, and give some training in conservation and emergency restoration," he says. "We're talking about how you secure objects and collections when things are falling apart around you. It's kind of a grim business."

Reports from inside Syria, as well as satellite images like the ones from Dura-Europos, confirm just how grim. Christian cemeteries have been vandalized by Islamist State guerrillas, and fighters from both sides of the Syrian conflict have targeted historic mosques and churches, particularly minarets and bell towers that could conceal snipers.

Some of Syria's highest profile historic sites, meanwhile, have fallen victim to the fighting. The historic center of Aleppo, which is world renowned for its medieval Arab architecture, was devastated by fierce fighting in the conflict's early days. In March the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers was used as a rebel stronghold and shelled by attacking government forces. And even the iconic Roman-era ruins of Palmyra have been damaged by tank fire and defensive earthworks. All are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Photo of the Palmyra ruins with the Qala'at ibn Maan castle in the background in September 2013.
The ruins of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, frame a castle in the distance.
Photograph by Romanova Anastasia, ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

Selling Heritage

Satellite images of Dura-Europos and other places suggest that looters have access to significant resources and expertise, not to mention heavy equipment.

"There must have been dozens of people involved, and they must have been finding stuff that encouraged them to keep digging," says Russell, the State Department consultant. "It's pretty spectacular to dig up an entire midsize ancient city."

The conflict in nearby Iraq may have been a training ground for organized gangs of looters.

"Looting is a job opportunity that war can create," says Salam al Kuntar, a Syrian archaeologist who fled the country in 2012 and now works at the Penn Museum. "But it takes time to establish networks and understand local contexts."

Post-invasion looting in Iraq flooded the black market with Babylonian and Sumerian clay tablets, drawing the attention of international authorities, but in Syria looters seem to be targeting sites with connections to ancient Greece and Rome.

"Classical objects are easier to sell, because Roman figurines could come from anywhere," Al Kuntar says. "Tablets are more difficult to market because of Interpol."

Photo of a Syrian soldier siting among ancient ruins in Palmyra, Syria, March 23, 2014.
A Syrian soldier sits among ancient ruins in Palmyra in March of this year. The area is one of many archaeological sites damaged by shelling and looting in the civil war.
Photograph by Sergey Ponomarev, The New York Times/Redux

Symbols of Tolerant Past

To help international authorities such as Interpol track and recover illegally smuggled artifacts, the U.S. State Department last month awarded a $600,000 grant to the American Schools of Oriental Research to comprehensively document Syria's museum collections and cultural sites.

The catalog will help customs agents and other law enforcement officials spot looted goods and apprehend smugglers, as well as raise awareness of stolen objects among antiquities dealers and collectors.

The project will also use satellite imagery, social media, and reports from informants on the ground to document the toll Syria's civil war is taking on the country's ancient sites.

Some of those sites are symbols of the country's diverse, tolerant past. Before its recent destruction, Dura-Europos was a good example, says archaeologist James.

"Dura seems to have been a multicultural, multireligious, tolerant kind of place. Christians, Jews, and what we would call pagans lived side by side. The Roman soldiers looked down from the city's walls on a synagogue and a Christian house church."

7 comments
Victoria Clayton
Victoria Clayton

I am horrified and tremendously saddened by the damage currently inflicted on the ancient heritage of Syria and Iraq. I spent some time in Syria in the 1990s, excavating with a research team at the site of Tell Ahmar in the Upper Euphrates Valley. I find it hard to believe that the area is now subject to such violence when I remember the hospitable, generous, friendly and interesting people from that region. Human lives are more valuable than material culture, no matter how old, but material culture, in many ways is what makes us human and I find the current situation, the tragic loss of human life and ancient remains, distressing. 


I am grateful to those who may be literally risking their lives in order to protect the precious, irreplaceable heritage of Iraq and Syria.

Inês C.
Inês C.

It is very sad that ancient monuments and artifacts are victims of many wars, just like innocent humans are. We should be very grateful for these people that are helping to preserve history. Their great work will aid the knowledge of this generation and many to come.

Frank L.
Frank L.

Preserving history is definitely paramount. Culture is the currency of meaning that mankind leaves behind.

samuel jeberson
samuel jeberson

It is really unfortunate that we are losing some of Mankind's oldest Historical heritage sites to Anti-social elements. Hope sense prevails over the divided people and sink all of their differences to come forward and preserve the ancient monument of damascus that are said to be 7,000 years old. 

craig hill
craig hill

@samuel jeberson We know in detail what happened in Iraq in 2003: On the day the invaders swarmed into Baghdad, forklifts and a cadre of trucks lined up to fill up with the treasures of Iraq's Archeological Museum. They came along with the troops and the goods flew off in C-131s. Whereabouts publicly unknown. 

Niamh Jordan
Niamh Jordan

It was locals who reported seeing troops do it! Why were you there? Or is it your job to cover this kind of thing up?

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