Besides killing more than 100,000 people, Syria’s civil war is exacting another irreparable toll as historic sites and artworks are looted or destroyed in the fighting.
An emergency list of endangered artworks was released Wednesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The initiative stems from the International Council of Museums, in collaboration with UNESCO and the US State Department.
“Major Syrian sites have been destroyed or damaged in two years. In Apamea, a Roman city in the south, heavy looting on the archeological site, around April 2011, and the minaret in Aleppo, burned a few months ago,” said Bonnie Burnham, president and CEO, World Monuments Fund.
The minaret, which was nearly 1,000 years old, was destroyed in fighting between government and rebel forces in April of this year. The fighting left the mosque pockmarked with bullet holes.
Apamea suffered major looting, Bonham said.
The bad news does not stop there. Because of the war in Syria, a cradle of civilizations whose heritage goes back to the Greeks, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire, many prestigious and registered sites are under threat.
In central Syria, Palmyra, an oasis of Roman ruins boasting temples and pillars, is exposed to looters and destruction.
The Crac des Chevaliers castle, which dates back to the Crusades and perched on a hilltop in western Syria, as well as the old quarter of the capital Damascus, are also in bad shape.
Artworks found in Lebanon, Jordan
The US State Department says that in the six regions of Syria’s cultural heritage that are listed by UNESCO as global treasures, 46 sites and hundreds of historic buildings are in danger.
The list just released aims to put out an alert “so that law enforcement, art dealers and collectors can be aware of” the objects that may be out there, said Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.
She spoke at the presentation of the list on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
She said ancient pieces have been found as smugglers tried to sneak them out of Syria.
The list brings together items that are not stolen but come from museums inside and outside Syria. The idea is to try to illustrate the kinds of pieces that might end up being trafficked, said Hans-Martin Hinz, president of ICOM.
It includes bronze plaques with inscriptions, statuettes made of stone or precious metals, ceramic vases or pieces of mosaics.
Irina Bokova, UNESCO director-general, said “protecting heritage is inseparable from protecting lives, it must be part of the humanitarian effort.”
She said some pieces have been found on the market in Beirut and Amman, but not much has been done in response.
While it is dramatic, the situation in Syria is hardly unique. Similar lists were written up for Iraq, Egypt and Afghanistan. In the latter, the famed Buddhas of Bamiyan dating back to the sixth century were blown up by the Taliban in 2001.
Sheila Canby, curator in charge of the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Islamic Art, said at least part of Syria’s cultural heritage is being erased.
“I don’t know the complete extent in every place but what I have seen at Apamea, for example, is shocking, horrible,” she said. “It’s as bad as it was in Afghanistan.”