(Idlib) Many relics from vast swathes of history, from the birth of Christ until the age of Islamic conquests, lie in opposition-held Idlib province. Some 760 archeological sites have been meticulously documented by the Idlib Antiquities Center.
These sites are under constant and daily threats, including the air raids by the Syrian Air Force and its allies and the lack of a regulatory body and laws to deter looters. This in addition to illegal excavations to obtain construction material. Furthermore, these archeological sites have become the front lines for many battles on a daily basis.
Ripe for Smuggling
Since 2013, Abu Ali and his 17-year-old son have been searching for artifacts near Tell Mannas, a small village in the Idlib outskirts. They use a small device that allows them to search for coins and statues to a depth of 100cm. “The device lets out a noise that indicates the presence of metal or coins. I sell what antiquities I find to dealers that live in the village,” he told SyriaUntold.
Jaber, who worked previously in construction, is now one of these antique smugglers. “I work as an intermediary between sellers and buyers in Syria and Turkey. My job is with smugglers along the border to bring out antiquities for a sum of money.”
Osama al-Ahmad (45) is an archeologist, and a museum curator. He attributes the rise of smuggling to the withdrawal of the regime. “The liberated areas have become active parts of the antiquities black market. Precious Syrian artifacts can be found for sale on public social network sites,” he said. Others yet practice forgery.
Al-Ahmad also laments the transformation of archeological sites into military camps. “Some of the armed factions have turned unique archeological sites into training arenas; the Nusra Front [now known as Fath ash-Sham Front], for example, has transformed the Dead Cities into its headquarters and camps.”
Additionally, the Syrian government’s air raids have pounded Bara, Shinshirah (15 km west of Maarrat an-Nuʿman, home to a Byzantine site), and the Maarrat an-Nuʿman Archeological Museum, where some paintings went completely destroyed.In addition to stone-breaking and urban sprawl, there has been illegal excavation, conducted by amateurs and professionals, to discover buried treasures, according to archeologist al-Ahmad. Illegal and wrongly conducted excavations have led to the damage of various sites, such as the antiquities of the Kingdom of Ebla, located in Tell Mardikh, 22km east of Idlib.
In the 1960s, archeologists discovered 160,000 cuneiform tablets in Ebla, one of the most important pre-Christian Empires. According to al-Ahmad, the excavations have led to “random digging in the palace gardens and the vandalism of walls that were restored annually. The increased digging caused heavy soil erosion and, in 2015, resulted in the collapse of a cave.”
Archeological Sites As Refuge
In the same context, Babisqa, a Roman site 55km away from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, and Rabiʿah, a Dead City that was abandoned by its inhabitants in the 8th century, alongside others, “have become home to dozens of families who escaped clashes,” continued the archeologist.
In Shinshirah, the families have changed the abandoned palaces, which resisted to earthquakes and wars since the 2nd Century AD, to structures resembling traditional houses with doors and windows. Meanwhile, the unique royal tombs of Bara were either smuggled or used as building material.
Abu Walid, originally from Hama, is one of the internally displaced who currently live in Serjila. “I chose one of the temples that was preserved on the outside and cut a few rooms, and made walls out of mud and nylon to protect from the winter cold, and dug wells in the ground for water. We cannot return home and we cannot afford anything else.”
Armed Opposition Accused of Stealing Artifacts
Idlib’s Museum is distinguished due to its cuneiform tablets dating back to 2500 BC However, many of the museum’s gold artifacts and stone statues were stolen when the government controlled the city, according to Ayman al-Nabu (36), the founder and director of the Idlib Antiquities Center, and Osama al-Ahmad, both former museum staff.
Nonetheless, the regime’s withdrawal did not prevent the museum from being looted by armed opposition groups. “After Jaysh al-Fath liberated Idlib [in March 2015], nobody was allowed to enter the museum, not even its staff. However, after disagreements broke out between armed groups, Ahrar al-Sham discovered stolen museum artifacts in the headquarters of Jund al-Aqsa, [a faction known for its ties with the self-declared Islamic State (IS)].” Abu Naim, a member of Ahrar al-Sham who retrieved the missing pieces, confirmed this story.
Multiple Initiatives to Protect Idlib’s Heritage
As a result of chaos and thefts, a number of local activists and volunteers took it upon themselves to protect and preserve the antiquities, establishing the Idlib Antiquities Center.
Al-Nabu, the founder, told SyriaUntold: “The center is a scientific one, established with the support of a group of Syrian expatriates [...]. It is an important institution that replaces the Department of Antiquities of the regime [the so-called DGAM] to implement protection, restoration and documentation.” The Center also offers training programs on the safeguarding of antiquities.According to al-Nabu, more than 1700 artifacts have been preserved by the Center and over 3400 have been documented as being smuggled out of the country. The Center collaborates with various entities within the Idlib province.
It also engages in the protection of the 1600 m2 wide mosaics at Maarrat an-Nuʿman museum. Al-Nabu told SyriaUntold that they’ve covered each studied panel with a protective guard. They also repair any areas that have been damaged and raise awareness about the importance of such artifacts.
Senior engineer, Mohamad al-Omar (40), from Farkya in Jabal az-Zawiyah area, formed a committee to protect his village’s archeological riches. On a volunteer basis, various academics, engineers, students, and teachers stand guard to protect the antiquities from vandalism and looting.
“The village contains hundreds of important sites dating back to the year 510 AD, the most important of which are the 1000 m2 wide Hercules Palace, the Red Palace, the Women’s Palace and others, so we had to protect them,” he said to SyriaUntold.
Although some were reluctant to the idea at first, chiefly those who benefitted from the chaos, Al-Omar commented: “After we explained our objectives, we were welcomed by the townspeople. Our goal as a committee is to be emulated in other areas to protect their antiquities, all of which play an important role in Syria’s heritage.”
Challenges and Obstacles
Despite the achievements of the Idlib Antiquities Center, its director al-Nabu had a lot to say about the challenges and obstacles they face. “We are short on material resources, which prevents our expansion. We also suffer from a lack of global recognition, namely UNESCO, who refuses to deal with any opposition-affiliated entity like numerous other international institutions.” Nonetheless, the Center is still working to obtain the UNESCO recognition.
As for the opposition-led Interim Government [of Syria], al-Nabu said its assistance was discontinuous. “The Interim Government provided us with about seven months of support, the coordination was good, but that quickly disappeared with no clear and tangible interest from them.”
In addition to the regime's airstrikes, the Center's work suffers from the lack of clear laws that criminalize looting and vandalism. For this reason, continued al-Nabu, “a set of meeting have been held with the sharia courts [which are widespread in opposition territories] to amend the existing Antiquities Law, but we were unable to reach a consensus because of their different views on this issue.”
These difficulties have prompted the Center to sign a memorandum of understanding with Lawyers for Justice, a local organization, to see them draft deterrent laws without any guarantee of their actual implementation.Despite the hardships, it remains extremely important to engage with the different armed groups on the importance of heritage preservation. Syria’s antiquities and ruins, an important part of world heritage, are now housing the internally displaced, who have nowhere else to go. Armed groups are using ruins as target practice. Important temples and palaces, untouched for centuries, have been reduced to rubble by the consistent shelling.
The Idlib Antiquities Center has stepped in where international organizations have not and has documented hundreds of violations, but a much greater effort is needed to raise awareness about the importance of preserving these sites.
[Main Photo: Serjila, located in Jabal az-Zawiyah, Idlib, one of Syria’s best preserved Dead Cities, dating back to the 4th Century AD. (Sonia Al-Ali/SyriaUntold)].
 Pseudonyms have been used for security reasons, with the exception of Osama al-Ahmad, Ayman al-Nabo, and Mohammad al-Omar.