Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Syrian heritage looted

  • Print

The conflict in Syria is destroying not only the lives of the Syrian people but their heritage -- the world's heritage -- as well.

Syria is a treasure house of history. Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra and almost 10,000 other archaeological sites there hold the remains of thousands of years of culture. Greeks, Romans, Persians, Christians and Muslims lived and fought in what is now Syria.

The UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, explained at a recent UNESCO meeting, "Few countries are as rich culturally, have had such a glorious past, are so important for what we are, all of us, for all the things that make, have made, human civilization."

Coins, jewelry, sculpture and other objects from Syria's archaeological sites can be stunningly beautiful and are eagerly sought by collectors. Recognizing the damage done by amateur diggers who supplied this trade in the past, Syria's domestic law has forbidden unauthorized excavation and export of antiquities since 1963. That essentially means there was no legal trade in recently excavated treasures even before the fighting began. But the chaos of the Syrian civil war gives looters and buyers unprecedented opportunities.

All six of Syria's World Heritage sites are now pockmarked with pits dug by looters in search of salable antiquities. Hundreds of other ancient cities and graveyards also look as cratered as the surface of the moon in aerial photographs taken by archaeologists who are powerless to stop the looting. Since the fighting began in 2011, investigators have found hundreds of Syrian antiquities for sale on the black market in Lebanon and Turkey, the first step in a chain of transactions.

You don't need to travel to a secret warehouse in Beirut to get Syrian antiquities. You can simply go online, where $119 will get you a coin minted in 150 BC for the Seleucid kings in Apamea, once a flourishing city and now a heavily looted archaeological site north of Homs, in the Syrian countryside.

The website I saw informed the buyer that the coin shows an "earthen green patina with some minor deposits" -- such coloring and encrustations mean that this coin was recently unearthed from centuries underground and is tantamount to an admission that it came from an illegal excavation.

The looting of a big chunk of heritage can take place like this, coin by coin, object by object. Antiquities are particularly vulnerable during conflict, as authorities withdraw and chaos consumes a nation. Looting is tempting to those on all sides of a conflict, from combatants who need to fund their fight to noncombatants whose usual means of support has been disturbed by war.

Although it is easy to feel sympathy for the looters seeking money to survive, whatever the motivation, looting's quick and crude excavations destroy far more of value than it uncovers.

There is a simple solution: Do not buy antiquities. There was a major decrease in elephant poaching after it was decided that the beauty of ivory was no excuse for the destruction that brought it to market. The same attitude is needed when a tempting ancient coin, statuette or piece of jewelry is on offer.

Some collectors who are aware of the illegal digs argue that they are rescuing antiquities by giving them a new home outside of the instability of Syria. But such thinking only feeds the market forces that result in looting. Moreover, the extraction of "rescued" antiquities involves the destruction of the surrounding archaeological context and any associated objects that lack the beauty required by the marketplace. When context is destroyed, so is the chance for the kind of careful study that reveals the workings of ancient civilizations.

Nor can collectors buy guilt-free just because a dealer claims an object was legally exported before 1963. We know that the black market is expert in faking the paperwork and export permits that give looted antiquities an aura of legality.

It is best simply not to buy antiquities, particularly from Syria or anywhere else where conflict and heritage are colliding: Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of South America and Egypt, where in August an entire museum was ransacked, with rioters stealing the antiquities and burning the mummies.

As the international community wrestles with what action it must take to end the death and destruction in Syria, every one of us can help simply by not acting -- that is, by not buying Syrian antiquities, beautiful as they are. For the sake of Syria's heritage, and the world's, remember: No market means no looting.


Erin Thompson is a professor of art crime at the City University of New York.

--The Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2013 A15

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Trouba talks about injury and potential for Jets

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A gaggle of Canada geese goslings at Woodsworth Park in Winnipeg Monday- See Project Honk Day 05- May 07, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Someone or thing is taking advantage of the inactivity at Kapyong Barracks,hundreds of Canada Geese-See Joe Bryksa’s goose a day for 30 days challenge- Day 15- May 22, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


What do you think of the government's announcement that there will be no balanced provincial budet until 2018?

View Results

Ads by Google