Umayyad Great Mosque at Aleppo, Syria

In the destructive chaos of the civil war, Syria’s archaeological heritage is disappearing piece by piece across its borders as smuggling of looted antiquities accelerates.

Unesco has raised the alarm at the damage wrought to the world heritage sites, including the ancient Umayyad mosque and historic vaulted souk of Aleppo, much of which were burnt in fierce fighting between armed rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Since the outbreak of the uprising 21 months ago, there have been reports of antiquities being stolen from sites that previously were well guarded. But now, according to a man involved in the trade, it is becoming more systematic.

“It’s very similar to Iraq,” he said. In both countries, he explained, the looting became “more organised” as time went by.

Syria is unusually rich in archaeological sites; it was at the frontier of the Roman and Parthian empires, and contains traces of all the important civilisations that had a presence in the Middle East going back to the earliest settled cultures. It is also unusual in having churches and mosques which have been in continuous use since the early days of Christianity and Islam.

Artefacts are dug up or stolen from the many sites, smuggled across the Lebanese and Turkish borders, authenticated by experts and then sold on to clients from around the world, including the US, according to people involved in the trade.

It is potentially big business. A small statue is worth $30,000, the trader said.

Another man involved in the trafficking interviewed this year said he was offered an object for $300,000.

A video posted on the internet purportedly taken in the ancient city of Palmyra gives an indication of the ravages wrought by the illegal trade. It shows several stone sculptures apparently stolen from the site being loaded on to a pickup truck.

Initially, the looting happened in an ad hoc manner, sometimes with the apparent collusion of security services.

One activist interviewed in the ancient city of Apamea said that excavating and selling antiquities there, mainly mosaics, had become a rare source of income for ordinary people in an economy ravaged by war.

“People don’t have jobs,” said the activist. “Poor farmers, when they find something worth $1,000 or $500, they get very happy. Some discovered precious things and now got very rich; others just found things which might just get food.”

Now however, according to the trader, much like the country itself, the trafficking is increasingly coming under the control of rebels.

“The FSA [Free Syrian Army] are controlling it in a bold and brave way,” he said. “But now they want weapons, not money.”

In a conflict estimated to have killed more than 40,000 people, it is hard to focus on buildings and objects.

Nonetheless, concerned heritage experts have started a Facebook group to monitor the impact of fighting, shelling and looting on Syria’s tapestry of historic sites.

“The destruction of things that have not been studied is like burning pages in the book of history,” said Rodrigo Martin, a member of the group. “Now we’re seeing total war everywhere we have to be really, really concerned.”

Professor Maamoun Abdul Karim, head of the Syrian authority for antiquities and museums, acknowledged the problem but said his agency had increased protection of sites by working with local communities. He pleaded with neighbouring countries to crack down on the illegal trade.

“We want to spread our message to the countries around us: be stronger and more protected against thieves,” he said. “We have to ignore our differences and be more focused on our heritage for the whole area, and for humanity.”

The trader however was unsentimental. “There is no place for feeling in business,” he said.

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