ISLAMIC crazies in Syria have begun a campaign of destruction, targeting archaeological treasures such as Byzantine mosaics and Greek and Roman statues because their portrayal of human beings is contrary to their religious beliefs.
According to this report, the systematic destruction of antiquities may be the worst disaster to ancient monuments since the Taliban in Afghanistan dynamited the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001 for similar ideological reasons.
In mid-January the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), a Taliban-type movement controlling much of north-east Syria, blew up and destroyed a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa on the Euphrates.
The official head of antiquities for Raqqa province, who has fled to Damascus and does not want his name published, said:
It happened between 12 and 15 days ago. A Turkish businessman had come to Raqqa to try to buy the mosaic. This alerted them [Isis] to its existence and they came and blew it up. It is completely lost.
Other sites destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists include the reliefs carved at the Shash Hamdan, a Roman cemetery in Aleppo province. Also in the Aleppo countryside, statues carved out of the sides of a valley at al-Qatora have been deliberately targeted by gunfire and smashed into fragments.
Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, general director of antiquities and museums at the Ministry of Culture in Damascus, says that extreme Islamic iconoclasm puts many antiquities at risk. An expert on the Roman and early Christian periods in Syria, he says:
I am sure that if the crisis continues in Syria we shall have the destruction of all the crosses from the early Christian world, mosaics with mythological figures and thousands of Greek and Roman statues.
Of the mosaic at Raqqa, discovered in 2007, he says:
It is really important because it was undamaged and is from the Byzantine period but employs Roman techniques.
Syria has far more surviving archaeological sites and ancient monuments than almost any country in the world. These range from the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus with its magnificent eighth-century frescoes to the Bronze Age Ebla in Idlib province in north-west Syria, which flourished in the third and second millennia BC and where 20,000 cuneiform tablets were discovered.
In eastern Syria on the upper Euphrates are the remains of the Dura-Europos, a Hellenistic city called “the Pompeii of the Syrian desert” where frescoes were found in an early synagogue. Not far away, close to the border with Iraq, are the remains of Mari, which has a unique example of a third-millennium BC royal palace.
Many of the most famous ancient sites in Syria are now in the hands of fundamentalists.
Syria’s museums are generally secure and moveable items have been taken elsewhere for safe-keeping. Museum staff say they saw what happened in Iraq after 2003 and moved quickly. But the most devastating and irreversible losses to Syria’s rich heritage of ancient cities and buildings are the result of looting.
Much of this is local people looking for treasure, though in many cases they are obliterating the archaeological record by using bulldozers. Two looters were killed when they used a bulldozer to excavate a cave at Ebla, causing its roof to collapse.
What worries Professor Abdulkarim and his staff is that over the last year the looting has become large scale. He says that there is “a mafia from Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon hiring hundreds of people to strip sites”.
Professor Abdulkarim complains that he has received little international help in preventing the looting of Syria’s rich heritage. The deliberate targeting by Isis and other jihadist groups of mosaics and statues seen as profane will accelerate the speed of destruction. Antiquities that have survived invasions and wars for 5,000 years may soon be rubble.
Meanwhile, news from Iraq is that a terrorist commander engaged in suicide-bomb training at a secluded camp north of Baghdad accidentally killed himself and 21 trainees. His suicide-belt was packed with live explosives.
Raad Hashim, working the counter at a liquor store near the site of the attack, burst out laughing when he heard the news.
This is so funny. It shows how stupid they are, those dogs and sons of dogs.
Another resident of the area said:
I heard this today when my friend rang me in the afternoon to tell me about it. He was so happy as if he was getting married. Which made me happy as well. I hope that their graves burn and all the rest of them burn as well. I was not happy with the number killed, though: I wanted more of them to die, as I remember my friend who was killed by a suicide bomber in 2007.
Hat tip: David Lawson (Syria) and Canada Dave and Michael Levin.