Idlib’s antiquities: tragic and forgotten

Drone photos showing severe damage at the Banqusa Archeological Site in the al-Wastani Mount, Idlib countryside – 13 January 2021 (Enab Baladi/Yousef Ghuraibi)

Idlib’s antiquities: tragic and forgotten


Enab Baladi – Ninar Khalifa

Having been there for thousands of years, archaeological sites in Idlib provide testimony to the various civilizations that emerged and disappeared throughout the region’s history. Today, however, these sites have another story to tell, one of war.

Over the course of the Syrian conflict, archeological sites in Idlib were subjected to serious violations. Some of these sites lost their identifying features; others were obliterated altogether.

In many incidents, perpetrators—individuals or groups—treated antiquities they found in these sites as lucrative sources of income. They turned these antiquities into objects of trade and did not hesitate to sell them, forgetting that they had a spirit of their own.

The Syrian regime and Russian forces targeted Idlib’s archaeological sites with airstrikes, using all types of weapons, for they adopted the scorched land tactic in many of the areas where these sites are located.

The armed opposition groups transformed some of these sites into military posts and training centers.

With the large-scale displacement waves, many families also took these sites as shelters or used their stones to build housing units.

Other abuses included arbitrary excavations in search of antiquities.

Discovered precious pieces are either sold or smuggled, particularly as artifacts trafficking increased in the area in the absence of authorities, capable of protecting these sites, prosecuting perpetrators, or enforcing laws sufficient to deter these violations.

Idlib province abounds with ancient ruins. It is home to a third of Syria’s archaeological sites and antiquities of various eras and civilizations that inhabited the area before the 5th AD.

Some of these sites are witnesses to Aramaic, Greek, Roman, Assyrian, Byzantine, and Islamic historic eras. They have even been on the World Heritage List.

Wanton destruction of the Banqusa Archeological Site in the al-Wastani Mount, Idlib’s northern countryside – 13 January 2021 (Enab Baladi/Yousef Ghuraibi)

Wanton destruction of the Banqusa Archeological Site in the al-Wastani Mount, Idlib’s northern countryside – 13 January 2021 (Enab Baladi/Yousef Ghuraibi)

Idlib province: open-air museum

Director of Idlib City Museum, Ayman al-Nabo, talked to Enab Baladi about the archaeological sites in Idlib and the crimes of vandalization many of these sites have suffered.

There are over 1000 archaeological sites in Idlib, 760 are registered with the Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) of the Syrian Ministry of Culture, al-Nabo said.

In Idlib, there are some 40 archaeological villages grouped into five parks, all registered on the World Heritage List. These sites date back to different eras. Some are prehistoric, others are either classic or belong to civilizations of the Ancient Near East or the late Islamic period, he added.

In the past ten years, archeological sites and locations of human heritage were subjected to several violations, including airstrikes and barrel bomb attacks, he added.

Even museums were not spared these assaults, among them the Ma`arat al-Nu`man and Idlib museums, as well as the Dead Cities, al-Nabo said.

There is also the urban sprawl within the archaeological sites’ areas, particularly with the large numbers of displaced persons that fled into the area, he added.

Some of these families sought protection in these sites; others started living there. This has burdened the sites with a mass of population unfit for their archaeological nature, he added.

The stones of the Classical period’s archaeological sites and those of the Dead Cities were even dismantled for construction or trade purposes. These practices inflicted grave damage upon the sites, which might cause the ultimate obliteration of some antiquities should they continue to happen, al-Nabo said.

Usually, archaeological sites have a surrounding protective area, extending over 100 m. However, construction work has been done just next to some sites, he added.

In Kokaniya town, Idlib’s countryside, tomb monuments and antiquities were removed. In their places, houses were built. The town’s church also displays marks of demolition, for many of its stones have been taken down, al-Nabo said.

There are also antiquities thieves who conduct arbitrary excavation work at these sites causing serious damage to the archeological levels, particularly when using heavy machinery, such as bulldozers. These practices destroy archeological structures completely, he added.

As for excavations done by individuals, who use hand tools, they rarely cause any damage to the exterior of these structures, and often fill any deep holes they have created to save the land on which the sites stand, al-Nabo said.

Stone statue stolen from Palmyra, smuggled into northern Syria and displayed today at the Idlib City Museum – 18 February 2021 (Enab Baladi/ Yousef Ghuraibi)

Stone statue stolen from Palmyra, smuggled into northern Syria and displayed today at the Idlib City Museum – 18 February 2021 (Enab Baladi/ Yousef Ghuraibi)

Who is perpetrating excavations and artifact trafficking?

Arbitrary excavations are not new, but these activities became widespread lately for a number of reasons. On the one hand, there are neither censorship mechanisms nor laws to deter offenders. On the other, there are high rates of unemployment and barely any job opportunities in the area.

Enab Baladi met several locals and officials from the area, who confirmed that both groups and individuals are involved in antiquities hunt and trafficking.

Individuals use simple tools to do digging in target locations. However, armed groups are using bulldozers and other heavy machinery after coercing landowners to permit excavations. The involved armed groups tend to sell the discovered artifacts and smuggle them into Turkey.

Director of the GDAM, Dr. Mahmoud Hamoud, accused Turkey of providing coverage and protection to arbitrary excavations in Idlib, and participating in the search for treasures, statues, and other antiquities that are then transported to its territories and from there to markets worldwide.

There are documents that prove the Turkish authorities’ complicity in the confiscation of over 30,000 artifacts, which they refused to return to the Syrian regime, ignoring all the demands and complaints filed by relevant international organizations and agencies, Dr. Hamoud told Ena Baladi.

Statue in Idlib City Museum — 18 February 2021 (Enab Baladi/ Yousef Ghuraibi)

Statue in Idlib City Museum — 18 February 2021 (Enab Baladi/ Yousef Ghuraibi)

Firas, a pseudonym, told Enab Baladi that he started excavating for antiquities in 2012 when he lost his job, and his family was left without an income.

Faris uses metal detectors to locate valuable antiques, which he later digs up with traditional tools such as axes and shovels.

Firas said that most of the artifacts he finds are metal coins and the more expensive the metal detector, the more artifacts it can expose, including those buried down in the soil. Diggers use French, German, and Turkish metal detectors, usually used to detect landmines.

Some of the artifacts he found were Byzantine, Roman, Greek, and Islamic copper coins; others were Byzantine and Fatimid golden coins, in addition to pieces made of glass and other materials.

Firas sells the coins and other artifacts to local merchants but has no information as to the destiny of these pieces after the initial sale process or their actual price. However, he is certain that these artifacts are smuggled abroad.

Clay tablet with Greek alphabet displayed at the Idlib City Museum – 18 February 2021 (Enab Baladi/Yousef Ghuraibi)

Clay tablet with Greek alphabet displayed at the Idlib City Museum – 18 February 2021 (Enab Baladi/Yousef Ghuraibi)

Hussam, pseudonym of a local antique dealer, said that some of the discovered artifacts are sold through foreign middlemen who maintain contact with merchants inside Syria.

Most of the artifacts are smuggled through Turkey or Lebanon, bought by foreign entities. Merchants from the Gulf region sometimes buy pieces that have Arabic patterns or style, he added.

Artifacts are priced according to their beauty, condition, the metal they are made of, and the eras they belong to, Hussam told Enab Baladi.

He said that prices range between 100 to 500,000 USD per piece, adding that once an artifact, a golden quarter coin, was sold for 250,000 USD.

The dealer’s expertise, the culmination of long years of work in this field, help him tell which artifacts are genuine and which are not.

Hussam confirmed that excavation work in Idlib has been going on for years, carried out only at night and in unpopulated open areas when the regime was in control of the region.  But digging for antiquities has turned into a familiar activity day and night, as well as near houses.

Excavation work poses several risks to the lives of diggers. A number of deaths were recorded in Idlib city due to walls or tunnels that collapsed over antiquity looters.

Armed groups accused of antiquity theft

Enab Baladi spoke to several eyewitnesses. They held the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) responsible for the overt excavation with bulldozers and other heavy machinery in Idlib. The HTS denied these accusations as mere allegations.

Requesting anonymity for security reasons, locals of the Haranabush village, south of Idlib, told Enab Baladi that HTS fighters have brought bulldozers to dig up archaeological objects near the village’s church.

When asked about the digging, the fighters alleged that they had excavation permits and that they were actually protecting the village’s antiquities, not stealing them, the locals added.

The locals, however, said that no one would dare work that openly unless they are affiliated with the HTS.

Locals living close to the Banqusa Archeological Site, which displayed clear marks of sabotage, confirmed HTS’s engagement in the said diggings.

They told Enab Baladi that the HTS carried out excavation across the site after a family dug up an amount of gold. HTS has also seized a fifth of the found gold.

In al-Kafr, west of al-Bara, a local said that regime-affiliated personnel advanced on the archeological Deir Sobat Place with tanks, demolishing some of its rooms and damaging other large parts of its structure.

Later, the armed opposition groups turned the site into a military training camp. Fighters trained on shooting while aiming at the stones, rendering the whole site vulnerable to collapse.

After the Syrian regime forces withdrew from the area in 2015, the opposition armed groups clashed, and the HTS exposed several artifacts hidden at the military post of the Jund al-Aqsa armed group. These artifacts were taken from Idlib City Museum.

“Upon storming one of the Jund al-Aqsa’s military posts, we found plastic boxes with artifacts and packaged pottery pieces. The Idlib Museum had announced it lost these pieces earlier,” a fighter of Ahrar al-Sham told Syria Untold

HTS training camp in Idlib – 17 June 2020 (Ebaa)

HTS training camp in Idlib – 17 June 2020 (Ebaa)

HTS responds

Contacted online, the HTS spokesperson, Taqi al-Din Omar, said that the HTS has not been a party to any of the excavations reported in Idlib’s archaeological sites.

He told Enab Baladi that, on the contrary, the Ministry of Justice of the Salvation Government is working to protect these sites through a set of preventative measures and to hold to account perpetrators of vandalization of archeological sites, and others involved in trafficking artifacts to other areas.

Head of the Directorate of Culture of the Salvation Government, Jamal Shahoud, told Enab Baladi that the directorate’s Department of Museums and Antiquities has, in addition to preventative measures, proposed a draft Antiquities’ Law to the Law Drafting Committee.

The committee is to forward the draft law to the Presidency for ratification, he added.

Shahoud said that provisions of the law are to be enforced by the courts to ensure the protection of archeological sites of vandalism or excavation.

Several regulations have been sent to the Ministry of Justice to take necessary action in this regard.

Shahoud told Enab Baladi that the directorate has held meetings with the Presidency, the Ministry of Local Administration, and the Ministry of Interior to discuss the status of archaeological sites in Idlib and press for setting up a mechanism to prevent their sabotage.

“The Presidency of the Salvation Government has generalized several circulars on the protection of cultural properties from vandalization. Other circulars were issued by the Ministry of Local Administration, addressing its administrative units. Similar circulars were issued by the Ministry of Interior, addressing the police departments. The police are to immediately intervene to stop any assaults reported by the antiquities’ directorates. The police have so far stopped many such assaults,” Shahoud told Enab Baladi.

“A committee was established to assess the condition of historical buildings within the city. This body is to study the registered structures and those added to the city’s regulatory plans. These measures seek to protect the recorded archaeological slices.”

Tools dating back to the Hellenistic period displayed at the Idlib City Museum—18 February 2021 (Enab Baladi/ Yousef Ghuraibi)

Tools dating back to the Hellenistic period displayed at the Idlib City Museum—18 February 2021 (Enab Baladi/ Yousef Ghuraibi)

Protection measures

Director of the Idlib City Museum, Ayman al-Nabo, said that protection measures are of two types.

The first has to do with raising awareness of the local councils, organizations, universities, and schools through organizing regular campaigns, holding discussions, and cultural seminars, he added.

These campaigns function to spread the idea that cultural properties must be preserved for next generations; to engage the local community in protection efforts, and to make archeological sites and antiquities an individual and collective responsibility, he added.

The second is legal and administrative, having to do with passing regulations, applicable in the courts. These regulations must criminalize violations against cultural properties and represent a force that deters those who lack ethical constraints and vandalize archeological sites in search of buried treasures, al-Nabo said.

He attributed the excavations that a large proportion of Idlib’s population is carrying out to poverty, lacking job opportunities, and poor living standards in the “liberated” areas.

Al-Nabo commented on the role of international organizations in protecting archeological sites, saying that they have been investing modest efforts since they consider such abuses of secondary importance, prioritizing education, healthcare, and food.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) provides support exclusively to the regime-affiliated DGAM in Damascus.

The UN agency does not recognize the technical or administrative bodies handling antiquity affairs in the opposition-held areas, al-Nabo said.

Al-Nabo hopes that with constant communication with UNESCO and periodic reports submitted to colleagues in Europe the Idlib antiquities file will see some progress in the area of protection.

General Director of Antiquities and Museums, Dr. Mahmoud Hamoud, said that the regime officials update the UNESCO periodically, reporting unlawful excavation works, sabotage, vandalization, and looting of Syria’s arcgeological sites.

Over 10,000 sites across the country have been harmed, he added.

The regime’s officials also maintain contact with the Interpol that reports them on pieces identified as smuggled. Some of the smuggled pieces have been returned from Lebanon while hundred others are still withheld by the Jordanian Directorate of Antiquities that promised it will send them back. Turkey, however, refuses to return any of the artifacts it has.

A child looking at artifacts displayed a Idlib City Museum – 18 February 2021 (Enab Baladi/Yousef Ghuraibi)

A child looking at artifacts displayed a Idlib City Museum – 18 February 2021 (Enab Baladi/Yousef Ghuraibi)

Antiquities in Syrian Law

Layer Ahmad Sawan told Enab Bladi that antiquity trafficking is an offence of a criminal nature. The penalty is as severe and deterrent as the death penalty under the Syrian Law.

Under Article No 56 of the Antiquities Law, persons who smuggled artifacts or engaged in artifact smuggling activities are to spend  15 to 25 years in prison, in addition to paying a fine of 500,000 to 1000,000 Syrian Pounds.

Under Article No. 57/2, those involved in unauthorized excavating for antiquities are to spend 10 to 15 years in prison, in addition to paying a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 Syrian pounds.

The Antiquities Law defines excavation as all works of excavation, probing, and investigating in search of moveable or immovable antiquities deep in the ground, on the surface,  in water valleys, lakes, or territorial water.

Those involved in antiquities trafficking, according to Article No. 57c, are to spend 10 to 15 years in prison, in addition to paying a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 Syrian Pounds.

Who owns antiquities in Syria?

Lawyer Ahmad Sawan said that Legislative Decree No. 222 of 1963, amended by Law No 1 of 1999, provides that all moveable and immovable antiquities and archeological sites in the Syrian Arab Republic are properties owned by the State, except for:

“immovable antiquities whose owners prove ownership by official documents; immovable antiquities registered by their owners with the antiquities authorities; or immoveable antiquities which antiquities authorities find unnecessary to register.”

Safeguarding antiquities in Syrian Laws

Lawyer Sawan noted that the Antiquities Law is keen on safeguarding this wealth.

The law prohibits municipalities from granting construction or restoration permits for similar activities intended in areas adjacent to archeological sites and historical buildings unless the antiquities authorities approve these activities.

With this, the law guarantees that modern buildings are constructed in harmony with the existing archeological style.

The law also provides that ministries, directorates, and relevant committees, upon setting up regulatory plans for cities or villages, as well as when removing condominium, should first obtain antiquity authorities’ approval.

This indicates that the law is keen on protecting antiquities and archeological sites even when the violations are committed by state departments.

However, reality is something else, for the Syrian archeological sites have been subjected to assaults of all sorts, looting, thefts, and smuggling by authority associates and the security mafias since the 1970s.

Protection of antiquities in international Law

Both the Rome Statute and the Hague Convention of 1954 consider assaults on archeological areas, classified as cultural or civilizational heritage, during armed conflicts as “war crimes.”

According to Article No. 15 of the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, provides that:

“any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Protocol if that person intentionally and in violation of the Convention or this Protocol commits any of the following acts: theft, pillage or misappropriation of, or acts of vandalism directed against cultural property protected under the Convention.”

Archeological building in the al-Bara region in Mount Zawiya in rural Idlib —2 May 2018 (Enab Baladi)

Archeological building in the al-Bara region in Mount Zawiya in rural Idlib —2 May 2018 (Enab Baladi)

Significance of Idlib’s antiquities

The Idlib-based historian Fayez Qawsara spoke to Enab Baladi about the significance of Idlib province and the archeological sites it houses, these sites tell the story of the many civilizations that emerged and flourished in Idlib.

Idlib is rich with prominent archeological sites, one in every three kilometers. These sites have distinct architectural styling, particularly the Darat, or what we call villas today, which date back to the 5th and 6th centuries C.E.

There are also churches, monasteries, markets, hamams (baths), and khans.

The historian added that monasteries served as schools, not only as places of worship, because modern-day schools did not exist back then. Muslim communities for their turn sent their children to Kuttabs.

Deir Turmanin and Deir Sobat are two prominent monasteries in the village of Kafer al-Bara, nearly a kilometer away from the ancient al-Bara village.

The Deir Sobat, a monastery, has a rectangle shape and large columns, which the al-Bara people covered in grape-bearing vines.

The monastery functioned as a school, encompassing a main hall, several rooms, and a kitchen reserved for students, teachers, and monks.

In addition to decorated walls, there are several light-transmitting structures in the monastery and many windows, so as to help students watch what they were learning.

It had a second name, Deir Elizabeth, the Monastery of Elizabeth, indicating that schooling was not limited to boys. Girls too were receiving education there, against all the claims that the era was one of ignorance.

The architectural style of the buildings in Idlib indicate that the area was progressive in the domains of education and economy, given its strategic location on routes taken by merchant convoys, coming from Antakya to Apamea/Afamia and other areas.

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