I spent several days last month in northeastern Syria, an area controlled neither by the regime nor the increasingly radicalized Sunni Arab opposition, but rather by Syrian Kurds who seek a third option. Just as in Iraq, the rest of Syria, and Israel, it’s hard to drive far without seeing historical mounds and remnants of un-excavated historical sites. Alas, even in the unlikely event peace comes to Syria, archaeologists never will be able to survey many of these sites because of rampant looting against the backdrop of the civil war.
Local authorities in northeastern Syria have fenced and posted guards at some of the sites, but the reports from displaced Arab about the Syrian opposition’s looting of archaeological museums in Aleppo, Homs, and elsewhere are cause for concern: According to various Syrians—none of whom are tied into the regime—some groups among the Syrian opposition and individual jihadis have systematically looted museums to sell artifacts for profit and to finance their jihad.
How different the reaction of so many in the American and European academic communities to the very real looting of Syria’s heritage, versus the inflated tales of the decimation of the Baghdad Museum and various archaeological and heritage sites around Iraq. On April 16, 2003, the American Schools of Oriental Research, a professional organization for U.S. archaeologists working in the Middle East, declared the Baghdad Museum looting to be “the most severe blow to cultural heritage in modern history, comparable to the sack of Constantinople, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Vandal and Mogul invasions, and the ravages of the conquistadors,” never mind that much of the theft at the Baghdad Museum turned out to be an inside job, and that most of the artifacts there were recovered.
Regardless, condemnation for the looting at the Baghdad Museum was warranted, even if marred by hyperbole. But the relative silence for the far greater damage currently being done to Syria’s heritage suggests political agendas among America’s academics trump objective concern for preservation of the past. And that is tragic.