Sunday, September 04, 2016


Close to three-quarters of the artifacts seized in anti-smuggling operations in Syria and neighboring Lebanon this year have proved to be fakes, Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim tells The Art Newspaper. Speaking ahead of his visit to Edinburgh’s International Cultural Summit this week, the director general for antiquities and museums also gives a relatively optimistic view of restoration work in Palmyra, and shares his pressing concerns over the devastating crisis in Aleppo.

There have been growing questions over the extent of illicit digging and antiquities trafficking in Syria by militant groups including Isis. Abdulkarim says that while 7,000 objects have been seized by authorities in Syria since 2013, the proportion of fakes has risen from 30% to closer to 70%, both inside the country and in neighboring Lebanon.

Objects seized by police in Damascus include 30 fake ancient Bibles, as well as Korans. Another haul was 450 gold Medieval coins, all discovered to be fake, along with scores of fake mosaic tableaus and statues. Some items were poorly made fakes that were quickly weeded out, but sometimes it was difficult to distinguish between the real artifacts and the copies. “I hope the originals are stopped and the fakes go to the market place,” Abdulkarim says.

From Lebanon, 89 big objects including 20 Palmyran statues, 18 mosaics, and Roman capitals and architectural pieces, were returned to Damascus in 2014 after they were examined by a Syrian delegation, he says. Lebanon is the only country that has worked with Syria during this time to investigate suspected looted objects, he adds, while Turkey and Jordan have refused any contact. “I don’t ask that they return all objects to Syria, because I know there will be a negative response,” Abdulkarim says, but he appealed to those countries to publicly report what they had seized, and provide figures and details to UNESCO and Interpol.

Turning to recovery efforts in Palmyra, Abdulkarim says that almost all of the ancient city’s artifacts have been secured since it was recaptured from Isil’s control in March, and most of the stones from damaged structures are reusable. "I can confirm that more than 90% of the collection in Palmyra is safe; 10% is damaged.” He says: “We didn’t lose Palmyra’s art.”

“We need about five years to finish our work,” Abdulkarim adds. Emergency repairs in Palmyra are now focused on two temples blown up by Isil—the Temple of Baalshamin and most of the Temple of Bel—and the Triumphal Arch. In terms of artifacts, 38 gold coins from the Islamic, Byzantine and Roman periods were lost in the rushed evacuation. But the unique Zenobia Antonius bronze coin, bearing the image of the third-century Palmyrene Queen, was removed to Damascus and is safe.

There are some 400 to 500 statues and tens of thousands of lesser objects now in Damascus awaiting restoration, Abdulkarim says. Three truckloads were evacuated just before Isil occupied Palmyra in June 2015 and many more pieces have been moved since. These include the 15-tonne remnants of the second-century Lion of al-Lat statue, which was blown up by the extremist group. While Isil beheaded many of the statues that could not be moved, “the majority were in a good situation,” Abdulkarim says, with heads left lying at the site.


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