Syrian violence threatens ancient treasures

Wed Feb 20, 2013 9:23am EST
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By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian museums have locked away thousands of ancient treasures to protect them from looting and violence but one of humanity's greatest cultural heritages remains in grave peril, the archaeologist charged with their protection said.

Aleppo's medieval covered market has already been gutted by fires which also ripped through the city's Umayyad mosque. Illegal excavations have threatened tombs in the desert town of Palmyra and the Bronze Age settlement of Ebla, and Interpol is hunting a 2,700-year-old statue taken from the city of Hama.

In a country which also boasts stunning Crusader castles, Roman ruins and a history stretching back through the great empires of the Middle East to the dawn of human civilization, the task of safeguarding that heritage from modern conflict is a daunting responsibility.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of Syria's antiquities and museums, says it is a battle for the nation's very existence.

"We emptied Syria's museums. They are in effect empty halls, with the exception of large pieces that are difficult to move," Abdulkarim told Reuters during a visit to neighboring Jordan.

Tens of thousands of artefacts spanning 10,000 years of history were removed to specialist warehouses to avoid a repeat of the storming of Baghdad's museum by looters a decade ago, in the wake of the U.S. invasion and overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, he said.

Syria's own 23-month-old conflict is tearing the country apart and has raised international concerns over the fate of one of the richest and most diverse historical collections of any single nation.

The UN cultural body UNESCO says it is concerned for the fate of six World Heritage sites including the old cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Bosra and the imposing Crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers.   Continued...

People shop at the main market, or souk, in the Syrian city of Aleppo June 23, 2010. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri