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The desperate quest to save Syria's history

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While the civil war in Syria has killed tens of thousands of people, it has also destroyed many of the country's ancient treasures. Now a number of Syrians are trying to save what artifacts they can -- and are risking their lives to do so.

Cheikhmous Ali pushes a box of ballpoint pens across the table towards his friend and countryman Ahmad. The stout Syrian laughs aloud as he tucks one of the pens into his shirt pocket. "You think it'll work?" asks Ahmad.

Ali nods. "And how," he says. The archeologist is proud of his plan: He has inserted mini-digital cameras into the pens. "The quality isn't great, but it serves our purposes," he says.

It's a hot summer's day and the two men are sitting on the terrace of a restaurant on the first floor of a department store in Gaziantep, in southern Turkey. Below them is an electrical goods retailer and a busy four-lane street. The Syrian civil war is raging some 60 kilometres away.

In a few days' time, Ahmad, armed with a pen set worthy of James Bond, will set off to Idlib in the northwest of the country. "A normal camera would be too risky," explains Ali. He recently bought the gadget in a store in Strasbourg, France, his adopted home.

These days, filming and taking photographs arouses immediate suspicion in Syria, not only among the soldiers in the pro-government Syrian army but also among the rebels.

Ahmad is on a potentially deadly mission -- he risks being kidnapped on suspicion of spying, tortured and possibly even executed. Even so, he is determined to document for Ali what is currently happening in Syria's venerable mosques and Crusader castles, as well as its museums filled with historical treasures dating back to the Byzantine and Roman empires. He also intends to film the smuggling underway in the war-torn nation.

But 35-year-old Ali is no Indiana Jones. He relies on people like Ahmad for his information and needs their help if he wants to begin devising rescue plans for imperiled ancient sites, mosques and museums and to compile an archive that will one day, once the conflict is over, make restoration work easier.

When the war broke out, he founded an organization called the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA). These days, it employs around 24 journalists, like Ahmad, and researchers. Some of them still live in Syria, some in France, and others shuttle back and forth between Syria and Turkey. Gaziantep is where they meet and co-ordinate.

Every historical site pulverized by a bomb, every mosaic shattered, chips away at Syria's history and identity. "We won't be able to withstand this as well," says Ali, who left Syria in 2003 to write a PhD thesis on architectural depictions in lapidary art in the ancient Near East at the Université de Strasbourg.

He hasn't dared return home since 2011, when protests against President Bashar al-Assad first erupted.

The Syrian civil war has already claimed more than 160,000 lives. Cities such as Homs and Aleppo have been reduced to apocalyptic landscapes. While nearly three million people wait for a better life in Lebanese, Turkish and Jordanian refugee camps, the towns and villages they come from are going to ruin. It's a loss not only for the Syrian people but also for archeologists and historians all over the world.

The region is often described as the cradle of civilization. In Tell Brak and Uruk in northern Mesopotamia, archeologists found the remains of one of civilization's oldest settlements, some of which date back to 8,000 BC.

For now it is unclear what sort of condition Syria's various archeological treasures are in. All of the country's six UNESCO world heritage sites -- such as the 12th century Crac des Chevaliers, the site of Palmyra and the ancient city of Aleppo -- are now included on the list of endangered world heritage.

On the day of his meeting with Ahmad, Cheikhmous Ali winds his way through the bazaar in Gaziantep, a rucksack slung over his shoulder like a school kid. Copper pans are piled up in front of the stores; men's voices mingle with children's babble and the clattering of blacksmith's hammers on metal.

"This pales in comparison to Aleppo," says Ali. "The bazaar there was hundreds of years older, more beautiful and also more significant." Today, all that is left of the historic souk is a pile of rubble.

The market stores, along with their ornate wooden doors, went up in flames in 2012 during fighting between the Syrian army and rebels. The destruction reached as far as the covered market's stone roof. Aleppo is still on the frontline of fighting.

Dozens of excavation sites have been abandoned and left exposed to the ravages of the sun in the northern Levant. Including Tell Brak. 40 meters high and one kilometre long, this ancient settlement mound is not far from the village where Ali grew up. Dating back 6,000 years, Tell Brak was one of the world's first cities.

"I grew up with so much unique history on my doorstep," remarks Ali. "I was never going to be anything other than an archeologist."

A team of British archeologists were working in Tell Brak until the outbreak of the civil war, but according to the Syrian authorities, the camp was looted long ago, along with the tools and ceramics that were being kept there. The experts -- who were dusting off ancient artifacts and restoring them with paintbrushes -- have been replaced by voracious armed bandits.

The remains of this ancient site were first discovered by the British archaeologist Max Mallowan. He was in charge of the initial excavations that began in 1937, aided and abetted by his wife, the mystery writer Agatha Christie, who would help clean up the finds and then photograph them. The couple was responsible for discovering the famous "eye idol" figurines in the foundations of a temple, believed to be over 5,000 years old.

For years, these sculptures -- with their funny little bell-shaped bodies and cylindrical necks topped with two perforated circles -- were among the highlights of the National Museum in Aleppo. These days, no one knows for sure how many of them are still there. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has officially added them to its Emergency Red List of Syrian cultural objects that are in danger of being damaged, looted and illicitly trafficked, along with reliefs from Palmyra, a bronze lamp from the Damascus region and gold jewelry from Aleppo.

Museum experts hope the Red List will help police in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon identify looted art which smugglers are seeking to carry over the borders.

Many of the objects being flogged by refugees and black marketeers end up in the hands of traders in Gaziantep Urfa and Mardin, who in turn sell them on to Europe and the US.

"The smugglers' motivations vary," Ali points out. Some of them are forced into it by desperation because smuggling is the only way they can afford to eat. Others are driven by greed. Often, the proceeds -- and some of these antiques are worth hundreds of thousands of euros -- are immediately used to acquire weapons and munitions. The looting, dealing and smuggling of antiquities from Syria helps the ISIS jihadists keep their coffers topped up.

Whenever Turkish police succeed in seizing smuggled cultural heritage, it generally ends up in secure storage. Turkey is co-operating closely with the Syrian opposition, Assad's enemies, and only plans to return the antiquities to Syria once the civil war is over.

The exiled oppositionist interim government has set up headquarters in a whitewashed house in Gaziantep. Ali is a regular visitor to the second floor, where he meets with the culture minister to discuss, for example, the authenticity of smuggled goods.

Earlier this year, the Turkish government confiscated yet another hoard of Syrian antiquities. A smuggler had attempted to transport over 300 ancient objects across the border near Mardin. The seized artifacts are now being kept in storage in a museum in the Turkish city, much to the outrage of the Assad regime, which is demanding their return.

In Syria these days, archeology and politics are inextricably linked.

Countries such as Lebanon go along with the demands of the pro-Assad camp. Last summer, the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) handed over 18 mosaics uncovered during a routine border control to the Syrian authorities. Guards had stopped and searched a tourist bus at customs and found the more or less well-preserved works of art, one of which depicted scenes from Homer's Odyssey. According to experts, they most probably came from northern Syria.

The Lebanese daily newspaper al-Akhbar reported the smugglers were professionals who had hidden the mosaics in the luggage compartment of the bus, wrapped in adhesive cloth similar to the sort of sticky flypaper often used in cowsheds. This had allowed them to detach the small stones from their original position and roll them up like one would roll a carpet. They collected any loose stones and then simply threw them on top.

"What is even worse than the fact that these criminals steal these items is the fact that they also destroy them," rails Ali. They also sometimes replace missing pieces of mosaics with new ones, thereby compromising their authenticity.

Ali is waiting in a Gaziantep Starbucks so he can meet two contacts from Aleppo who are keen to work with him. They belong to a group of some 10 activists, similar to Ali's APSA, but less cautious. "These men walk through fire," says Ali. Last year, they lost a member of the group who was on a mission in downtown Aleppo.

So far, 26-year-old Ward Furati and his friend, the two contacts, have survived unscathed. Before they start discussing their new missions with Ali, they order coffee and American cheesecake. They look like students on a break between class. "Sometimes, when I'm dashing across an open square with a sandbag on my back and snipers everywhere, I wonder if I'm not a complete fool," says Furati.

But he carries on regardless, saving artifacts from bullet hail one sandbag at a time. "Otherwise there will be nothing left in Syria," he says. "And then where will we be?"

Furati used to study architecture at the University of Aleppo. He was thrown into jail for taking part in an anti-Assad protest in 2001, and by the time he was released, there was little was left of the city and the university.

He's been living with friends in Gaziantep and Aleppo ever since. Many houses are empty. "It's not hard to find a bed for the night," says Furati, who gave himself a new name after the Arab Spring. None of the activists use their real names anymore.

Together with his comrades-in-arms, Furati dismantled the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo and took it to "a safe place." They have also rescued books from the library of a Belgian diplomat and bricked up a wooden niche decorated in the 13th century with verses from the Quran to protect it from bullets.

Ali and Furati spend nearly two hours debating how their organizations could work together. They would like to join forces to document the current state of the Dead Cities in the Limestone Massif in northwest Syria, a group of 700 abandoned settlements dating from the 1st to the 7th centuries. "If we had a comprehensive overview we would be able to plan our next move," explains Ali. Building protective structures, for example, or eventually restoring the sites.

Ali scribbles numbers in his notebook, and Furati does the math. The archeologist estimates they would need about 180,000 euros (C$260,000) to launch the project. They need to pay the activists, and they also need vehicles and materials. "Then we'd really be able to make a difference," says Ali, although he looks none too optimistic.

Ali is all too aware how hard it is to raise funds for this sort of project. Who cares about cultural heritage when people are dying?

-- From Der Spiegel magazine

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2014 A9

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