NEW YORK // More than 5,000 years ago, an army from the Mesopotamian city state of Uruk marched north and destroyed a prosperous rival city, Hamoukar, using slings and clay projectiles to massacre residents before burning it to the ground.
Archaeologists say the battle was perhaps the first instance of large-scale, organised warfare in human history, and it occurred in a corner of north-east Syria that, millennia later, is again soaked in blood as the country’s civil war grinds on.
Besides claiming more than 120,000 lives since March 2011, the war has taken a heavy toll on Syria’s rich historical heritage. World famous structures have been damaged by bombing and shelling, and looting of artefacts is becoming widespread.
Salam Al Kuntar, a Syrian archaeologist who worked for the ministry of antiquities, is the co-director of the Hamoukar site, where excavation is continuing, but she was forced to flee her home in Damascus last year and now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. From her new home in the US, Ms Al Kuntar works to protect Syria’s historical treasures with whoever is willing to help, from fellow archaeologists to US officials, and even Islamist militants.
But as the war drags on and extremist militants rise to prominence among rebel factions, the task becomes more difficult and Syria moves closer to losing the historical patrimony that Ms Al Kuntar says will be crucial for rebuilding the country’s economy, and more importantly, its shared identity.
“We were hoping that even before war ended at least in liberated areas we could work with the militants to establish some sense of normality and even create jobs and some sense of something to aspire to, a means for the community to get together,” Ms Al Kuntar said. “But the longer the war takes the more complicated things become on the ground.”
Ms Al Kuntar said she and her colleagues in Syria had a good relationship with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) leadership, and that the rebels “really wanted to do something to help protect the sites but they don’t have the means or the experience”.
She was in talks with the FSA to set up a training programme for Syrians in the cities and towns that it controls, to allow them to protect sites and draw a small salary. But as the FSA lost control of these areas in northern Syria to Islamist groups, and with little US interest in funding preservation efforts, the plan faltered.
Syria is home to some of the oldest continuously populated cities and towns in the world, and perhaps no other country possesses as much well-preserved history, from the Bronze Age metropolises to Greek and Roman ruins to Byzantine towns and some of the most exquisite examples of Islamic architecture and art.
Most of Syria’s dozens of heritage sites, more than 90 per cent by some estimates, including all six Unesco-designated sites, are in areas of conflict. Damage from government airstrikes and shelling, or rebel bombs and gunfire, has been the biggest threat.
In April, shelling completely destroyed the minaret of the 1090AD Umayyad mosque in Aleppo. Rebels who were in control of the surrounding neighbourhood claimed that government tanks shelled the minaret as troops tried to retake the area. Seven months before, the Crac de Chevaliers crusader castle was hit by mortars.
“The situation is catastrophic, much worse than one can imagine,” Unesco’s assistant director general for culture, Francesco Bandarin, said.
As Syrians become increasingly desperate, looting has become the most pressing problem. At some sites, “it looks like the looting at the worst-looted sites in Iraq, it’s just breathtakingly bad”, said a US State Department official who monitors Syria’s historical sites and who requested anonymity.
“The war is distracting any kind of civilian policing efforts. The war is great for looters, nobody is there to stop them.”
Satellite images of the extensive Roman ruins of Apamea, a town built by Marcus Aurelius, taken before the civil war began and after, reveal the scope of the looting. In the recent images, the site is pockmarked by what look like bomb craters that Ms Al Kuntar said were pits dug by looters, some of whom even brought bulldozers.
In Raqqa city, Ms Al Kuntar stayed in close contact with her colleagues at the local museum as the town fell to Islamist rebels, and then was taken over by Al Qaeda-linked groups.
The museum workers hid hundreds of historical objects in the city’s central bank, but the Syrian Islamist militia Ahrar Al Sham, found the treasures and took them. But after Ms Al Kuntar’s colleagues approached the group, they gave back most of the objects, which the museum workers now store in their homes.
As Syrians, the Ahrar Al Sham militants understood the importance of preserving the country’s history, Ms Al Kuntar said, and the group even sent guards with museum staff to chase looters from a nearby Roman-era site.
But Ahrar Al Sham eventually ceded control of Raqqa to the more extreme Al Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is made up of foreign fighters and led by an ethnic Chechen commander from Georgia.
“People fear them greatly because they are ruthless,” Ms Al Kuntar said. “People try to avoid them as much as possible.” Even so, some museum staff approached the group about helping protect the nearby historical sites.
Al Qaeda militants have destroyed or damaged Shiite, Sufi and Christian places of worship, but have mostly left pre-Islamic sites alone. The Al Qaeda leaders in Raqqa told the museum workers that without funds they would not be able to help. Ms Al Kuntar suspects that Al Qaeda allows looting and takes a cut of the profits to buy weapons. She says little is being done now to protect sites in Raqqa and elsewhere in rebel-held areas. Recently she was told looters had been tunnelling into a site near Aleppo that dates back to 3,000BC and contains one of the greatest historical archives of Mesopotamian civilisation.
The tunnel, however, collapsed, killing two looters.
In September the US state department, along with the International Council of Museums, launched a red list of types of Syrian artefacts that will help customs and law enforcement officials identify stolen antiquities that smuggling networks move overseas.
Similar red lists have been established for other countries in the Muslim world that have faced large-scale loss of their historical treasures, including Afghanistan, Mali, Egypt and Libya.
While the initiative is useful, Washington is doing little inside Syria to help protect and preserve heritage. The more territory extremist Islamists take, the less willing US officials are to provide resources. The US is more interested in funding counter-sectarian projects, and preservation does not fit under this category, Ms Al Kuntar said.
She said she believes that preservation efforts will alleviate suffering while the war continues by offering jobs and protecting ancient sites that are part of Syrians’ daily lives and identities.
“These things are very important because they build a sense of place,” she said. “They are what make the country what it is, or was, and Syrians even though they are very diverse, are loyal to the places they know.”
Baghdad was badly altered by years of occupation and war, and Iraqis who have returned to the country after living as refugees feel that “this is no longer my city, and are heart-broken”, which makes healing the psychological and political wounds much more difficult, Ms Al Kuntar said.
“Places that you took for granted now become very precious,” she said. “It is important to restore [the sites] so people psychologically are able to recover and so some day they can go back to normality.”