The raging war in Syria is killing civilians, wrecking institutions and the economy, and destroying the country. It is also eliminating its heritage, history, and antiquities. But discussing this issue is not a luxury we can postpone. The issue is not random at all. Theft of archaeological sites in Syria has become systematic. Those implicated in the operations, thieves and smugglers, are not reluctant to justify their reprehensible and illegal actions.
The pieces will be taken to Damascus to ensure their authenticity, in the first operation of its kind involving the return of antiquities since the eruption of the events in Syria. The issue was brought to light recently after the attempted smuggling of 18 mosaic tiles from Syria, which were seized by Lebanese customs a year and a half ago. The General Directorate of Antiquities is expected to return them today to the Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) in Syria. Information obtained by Al-Akhbar reveals that the smuggling operation took place in October 2012. A Syrian bus with Idlib license plates crossed the Lebanese border with only a few passengers. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. However, a surprise checkpoint set up by customs stopped the bus. The driver was asked to open the luggage compartment in the lower part of the bus. To their surprise, they found 18 mosaics, wrapped and piled on top of each other.
The artifacts were arranged in the form that carpets are kept at home. In fact, "carpets" are what they are usually called by smugglers. When mosaics are being removed from the ground, they are covered with a piece of strong adhesive cloth. This allows them to detach the small stones – some of which had been stuck together for more than 200 years – and begin rolling the mosaic like one would roll a carpet, removing them from the ground. The loose stones that remain are picked up so they can restore the mosaic with its original stones. This was how the discovered mosaics were removed.
Customs delivered the pieces to the Office of International Thefts. Archaeologists from the Lebanese General Directorate for Antiquities checked the mosaics and declared to Lebanese authorities that they were authentic and originated in Syria. The directorate's report was used as conclusive evidence in the trial against the bus driver, who was accused of smuggling, despite his lawyer's attempts to prove that his client was transporting recently manufactured personal items. But this could not hold up against the report of archaeologist Laure Salloum.
The court ordered the items to be returned to Syria and, in the meantime, to be safely kept in the General Directorate for Antiquities' warehouses. Syrian authorities were contacted, and they sent a preliminary team to assess the pieces and verify their Syrian origins. The team, which visited the warehouses in June, was made up of Director of Archaeological Exploration and Studies Ahmed al-Tarqaji, Director of Restoration Laboratories Kamit Abdullah, and restoration expert Maher Gebai.
The teams from both directorates began inspecting the artifacts, and the Syrian team faces began turning sour with every piece. The first piece was heavily damaged. The relatively large stones (1 cm squares) were falling apart, and it was difficult to discern the the original image it depicted. This mosaic was cut into 11 smaller squares, which had to be put together to see the original image. Then they began to unwrap the mosaics with small stones. Faces and Greek writing began to appear. One of them depicted scenes from Homer's Odyssey, with the names of the characters in Greek letters.
The suspense grew as the last and largest piece, 3.40 by 2.10 meters, was unwrapped, revealing meticulous precision in illustration and the use of stones of no more than 3 mm each. The tableau portrayed the four seasons as faces at the corners. In the middle, it showed people going about their daily life. The borders were decorated with signs of the zodiac. "The astrological depiction of the zodiac in its current form goes back for centuries," explained Abdullah. "This was discovered in other mosaics." As for the authenticity of these pieces, he said, "We cannot say for sure until we study the pieces in the restoration laboratories in Damascus." However, he stressed that the last item was "a first-class museum piece. It is a valuable piece of art originating in northern Syria."
"The war in Syria is drowning the country in its people's blood and extensive destruction. But where the guns do not reach, the shovels will dig," Saad explained.The pieces will be taken to Damascus to ensure their authenticity, in the first operation of its kind involving the return of antiquities since the eruption of the events in Syria. "Lebanon is the only neighboring country, which contacted us and informed us about seizing smuggled antiquities," explained the General Director of DGAM in Syria, Mamoun Abdul-Karim. "This positive relationship confirms that Lebanon is truly concerned with the fight against smuggling Syrian antiquities. We are grateful for its efforts and credibility."
"The war in Syria is drowning the country in its people's blood and extensive destruction. But where the guns do not reach, the shovels will dig," Saad explained. "Archaeological sites, even the ones difficult to reach, were not spared the war. Over there, Syria's history is not buried under the rubble, but in the sand carried with the antiquities." "Archaeological digs have become open grounds and everyone can find something there. Some of them justify this by the supremacy of their cause and others by their need. Fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) acknowledged in several media reports that some combatants are charged with digging for antiquities that could be exchanged with weapons," Saad explained.
"This is confirmed by archaeologists monitoring the market closely. One of them, who asked to remain anonymous, goes even further, saying that trading 'arms for artifacts' is currently taking place, but it is concentrated in Turkey, not Lebanon. The roads leading to Lebanon are now inside the battlefields in more than one location. Yet the borders with Turkey are wide open and the traders can move with great ease. The goods are transported by airplanes to selected locations," Saad continued.
Lebanon imports weapons and stolen cars, and exports antiquities and hashish. It is merely a stop for stolen Syrian antiquities, not the final destination. To ensure the success of smuggling operations of this magnitude, "there is collusion between security forces on each side of the border, the exporting and the importing side. General Security and Customs are the ones responsible here. The collaboration of some of their personnel ensures the arrival of the pieces."
There are no official figures on how extensive the thefts are in Syria. Aerial photographs could be the only evidence currently. At the satellite division of the UN Institute for Training and Research, sources maintain the lack of images for sites along the Euphrates, especially around the Hassakeh region. However, a detailed comparison of images of Apamea between 2011 and 2012 shows that the famous archaeological site now looks like the surface of the moon.
More than 5,000 craters, some two meters deep or more, are spread around the site. Archaeologists fear that the fate of the eastern Dura-Europos and Mari sites could even be worse. According to former director of archaeological excavation in Syria Michel Makdissi, "We received news of [non-combatant] armed groups around these two sites, protecting workers spread around the two areas, who are digging non stop."