Activists on Tuesday called for more surveillance of Syrian archaeological sites and a crackdown on trading in looted art at the opening of an international campaign to save the war-torn country's heritage.
The campaign, launched in Rome and entitled “The Forgotten Victim in Syria”, is being supported by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin along with leading figures from the worlds of politics and art.
“Virtually no one speaks about the damage being done to one of the biggest cultural treasures in the world,” said Francesco Rutelli, a former Italian culture minister and honorary president of the Berlin institute.
“We are moved by the humanitarian drama unfolding there, the thousands of victims, the refugees, but that is not a reason to ignore this other drama,” he said.
Rutelli said Syria’s 10,000 monuments, archaeological sites, museums and historic towns were at risk.
Italian professor Paolo Matthiae, a top expert in Syrian archaeology, said it was time to act.
“Syria has always been a unique bridge between East and West,” he said, adding that he was particularly concerned about the sharp rise in illegal excavations and looting from ancient sites in three years of war.
Matthiae is famous for having discovered the ancient city of Ebla near Aleppo in 1964 but he said he has not been back since 2010 when all international archaeological missions were suspended over security.
The UN’s cultural body UNESCO last year classified seven sites in Syria including the old town of Aleppo, Palmyra and Krak des Chevaliers — as being in danger.
Matthiae underlined that Syria was the source of important human developments like the creation of the first modern city and the first alphabet.
He said the country had also once been a model for “peaceful coexistence” between different religions.
Campaigners said they also wanted a plan for cultural tourism development in Syria after the war to be already put in place as they said it would prove crucial for the country’s economic recovery.
The campaign is offering a prize for the person or organisation who has done most to protect Syria’s heritage and is also planning an exhibition of Syrian art in Rome entitled “Syria: Splendors and Dramas”.