The Race to Save Syria’s Archaeological Treasures

Mar2016_f_crisisarcheologysyriaopener.jpg__800x600_q85_crop_subject_location-2375,2148James Harkin at The Smithsonian:

The souk is within the walls of Aleppo’s historic city center, one of six locations in Syria listed as World Heritage Sites by Unesco. Before largely peaceful protests in 2011 against the autocratic Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were met with government violence and devolved into a devastating civil war, killing at least a quarter of a million people and displacing millions so far, the country was one of the most beautiful on earth. Much of its enchantment came from its plentiful antiquity, which wasn’t fenced off as in European capitals but lay unceremoniously around—part of the living, breathing texture of everyday life. The country, at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, boasts tens of thousands of sites of archaeological interest, from the ruins of our earliest civilizations to Crusader-era fortifications and wonders of Islamic worship and art.

Now these antiquities are under large-scale and imminent threat. Already some of the most valuable have been destroyed as collateral damage in the shelling and crossfire between government forces and various rebel factions; others have been sold off, bit by valuable bit, to buy guns or, just as likely, food or a way to escape the chaos. Satellite images of treasured historical sites show the soil so completely pocked by holes, the result of thousands of illicit excavations, that it resembles the surface of the moon—destruction and looting, as Unesco director general Irina Bokova put it last fall, on “an industrial scale.”

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