United Nations Ban on Trade in Syrian Antiquities Urged by Scholars

Syrian policemen walk inside the ransacked Sham Zenobia Palace Hotel, situated opposite the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, 215 kilometers northeast of Damascus, on March 14, 2014. Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty

Scholars are calling on the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution banning the illicit sale of Syrian antiquities, similar to the one passed in 2003 during the Iraq War.

Supporters of the ban say that Syria's cultural heritage sites, already vulnerable since fighting between the government and opposition fighters erupted in 2011, now face additional threat from Islamic State militants, commonly known as ISIS.

An open letter signed by more than 150 scholars, including archaeologists and historians, along with a petition with 17,000 signatures, will be delivered to the members of the United Nations Security Council next week. It asks the U.N. to take action similar to the 2003 decision during the Iraq War to ban sales of Iraqi "cultural properties."

Syria is home to six United Nations World Heritage sites, including the Ancient City of Damascus and the Ancient City of Aleppo. All six are considered in danger by UNESCO, and five have suffered "significant damage," according to a report released last week by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"The influence of Syria's history on modern society is hard to overestimate," the letter says.

The letter says looting has turned Syria's heritage sites into "weapons of war," with the sale of antiquities "fuelling the conflict." "An international ban is needed now," the letter reads.

A breakdown of law and order in Syria since fighting started in 2011 has resulted in museums being looted and ancient artifacts stolen, according to reports by UNESCO. One of the campaign's leaders, Dr. Amr Al-Azm, associate professor of Middle Eastern history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio, tells Newsweek that ISIS has turned the looting into an industrial operation.

Site of looting and digging at the ancient city of Apamea, Syria. Dr. Amr Al-Azm

"Essentially, large chunks of history, of Syria's past, are disappearing up in smoke with nothing left. We're losing that," Al-Azm said.

This summer, members of the Syrian Heritage Task Force, a group chaired by Al-Azm that trains workers in artifact preservation, told him that ISIS militants were starting an organized and fast-paced effort to loot and dig up historic and culturally significant sites.

Militants are using bulldozers and causing untold damage to sites, before giving artifacts to middlemen who arrange their shipment to buyers around the world, Al-Azm said.

"They just dig and they take it out, so they destroy the context with no record," he said.

The actions of the militants have caused more damage than the looting that followed shortly after the outbreak of fighting, Al-Azm said.

"This is looting on an industrial scale; this is mass looting," said Al-Azm. "They were organized, it was planned, it was taking on a commercial scale."

Al-Azm, who began his efforts in July, says the campaign aims to both protect the country's culturally significant sites and stop the illicit trafficking of artifacts.

UNESCO has been working in Syria since 2012 to safeguard historic sites and prevent artifact trafficking and has maintained a website with updates on its efforts.

In a July statement on UNESCO's website, Director-General of Antiquities and Museums of Syria Maamoun Abdulkarim described "vast regions" of the country as "distressed cultural areas due to the exacerbation of the clandestine excavation crimes and deliberate damage to our historic monuments and cultural landmarks in those regions."

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where he condemned ISIS for its destruction of cultural sites.

"[ISIS] is not only beheading individuals; it is tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations," said Kerry, who cited the Tomb of Jonah in the Syrian city of Aleppo, a holy site sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews, as an example of a sacred site believed to have been blown up by the militant group.

The U.S. and its coalition partners launched targeted airstrikes in Syria and Iraq on Monday night.

Most Syrian cultural sites are either Hellenistic, Roman or Islamic in the areas where the militants are operating, according to Al-Azm. Antiquities from the sites include mosaic floors—some of which were looted near the city of Idlib recently, said Al-Azm—gold and silver coins, and smaller artifacts like brooches, rings, pendants or beads. Iron Age sites also exist and mostly produced pottery, or precious metals in "extremely rare" cases, said Al-Azm.

The sites are unlikely to produce a "million-dollar artifact," something that is contributing to the extensive plundering of the sites, he said. "In order to make it worth their while, you need a lot of that stuff coming out."

The United Nations has not yet responded to the letter, said James Sadri, campaign director of the Syria Campaign, an advocacy organization that is helping with the effort to ban antiquities trading.

"The fact that Iraq benefited from a similar ban in 2003 shows it can be done, and we know in the case of Iraq it had a real impact," Sadri told Newsweek.

Al-Azm said the unifying effect of shared heritage will be invaluable to Syrians when the war ends.

Historical artifacts can serve as "common denominators," Al-Azm said, "something that people can rally back round again, and say, 'Yes, we have Sunnis and Shiites and Christians and Muslims, Alawites and pro-regime and anti-regime, but there is a common history we all share.'

"These could be very important starting points that could pull this fractured community back together again," Al-Azm said.

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