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Some Take Massive Risks To Save Syria's Cultural Heritage

More than 250,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced as a result of the conflict in Syria. But the destruction also extends beyond human lives. Significant parts of that country's heritage are now lost. Architecture, art and antiquities dating back more than a thousand years have been wiped out — in what some have called cultural genocide.

Reporter James Harkin has spent time on the ground in Syria. He reports on the race to save Syria's archaeological treasures in the recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

The threat to the country's antiquities comes from different places. "Some of the most valuable have been destroyed as collateral damage in the shelling and crossfire between government forces and various rebel factions," Harkin writes. "Others have been sold off, bit by valuable bit, to buy guns or, just as likely, food or a way to escape the chaos."

And the Islamic State has destroyed historical artifacts deliberately in what Harkin calls "a new kind of historical tragedy." ISIS militants, shown in videos, "have attacked priceless artifacts with jackhammers, rampaged through museum galleries housing historically unique collections, and exploded sites in territory they control for scarifying effect."

Harkin spoke with NPR's Eric Westervelt about his experience traveling to Syria and reporting on efforts to save this cultural heritage.

On the historic Aleppo souk, the market

It's a kind of wonderful, natural archaeological maze in which you can get lost in the bustle. And so, it was an amazing thing to behold, along with the famous mosque there, the Umayyad Mosque. And so to go back, five years later and see the pummeling of this place. You know, 1,000 of the market stalls in the souk have been reduced to nothing. One hundred and forty of the historic buildings have been tangled. The only sound you can hear is the sound of metal — the metal corsetry of damaged buildings twisting in the wind like sinister wind chimes. And so it was eerie. Like a scene of a crime.

On the Umayyad Mosque

The Umayyad Mosque is in very very bad shape. It sort of lies there like a sort of agonized soldier crying in no man's land in World War I. The famous minaret is lying there — and I saw it with my own eyes from this military watchtower, it's lying there in pieces. In fact, one whole side of the whole mosque is in stones. It's in very very bad shape. And what was famous about that mosque, or one of the things that was famous about it was its riches of Islamic art. And who knows where they are now.

A photo from 2014 shows ancient ruins of Palmyra that date back 1,800 years. Much of it has now been destroyed by ISIS.
Joseph Eid / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
A photo from 2014 shows ancient ruins of Palmyra that date back 1,800 years. Much of it has now been destroyed by ISIS.

On Palmyra

Palmyra has taken such a hit from all sides in some ways. Hundreds of Islamic State militants converged on the city, they took the city and they began holding not only the archaeology, but the people — including the staff, the archaeological staff — hostage. And famously they gruesomely murdered the head of antiquities in that city, Khalid al-Asaad.

On why ISIS murdered Palmyra's chief of antiquities

There were a number of reasons that were floated at the time. For a start, they simply don't like archaeologists. They see them as secular and idolatrous and part of a civilization that they find offensive. Another reason why they apparently killed Khalid al-Asaad, according to some of his relatives, was that he refused to tell them where the archaeology was hidden. Because his staff had been very courageously involved in concealing some of it.

A portrait of Khaled al-Assad, is displayed during a ceremony in his memory at the National Museum on Aug. 23, 2015 in Damascus.
Louai Beshara / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
A portrait of Khaled al-Assad, is displayed during a ceremony in his memory at the National Museum on Aug. 23, 2015 in Damascus.

A different story was told to me by professor Abdulkarim, who's the head of antiquities in Syria, who said that for some reason the Islamic State were convinced that there was tons and tons of gold in the museum in Palmyra, which only needed to be liberated with the help of finding out where it was.

Ma'amoun Abdulkarim, the archaeology professor, said, "You know, these people are crazy. They're stupid. There was no gold."

But it's possible that they might have killed Khalid al-Asaad because he refused to tell them where nonexistent treasures were that they were convinced — for their own paranoid reasons — were there.

On saving antiquities

Some very courageous people were involved in that. One of the curiosities of the Syrian regime is that this regime thrives on the prospect of crisis. When I was in Damascus early in 2012, I was told by a friend of mine, a civilian, that the regime had already begun taking down the statues of Hafez al-Assad, the old dictator and the father of the current president. In other words, very early on, this regime for its own authoritarian slightly paranoid reasons had begun secreting all of its archaeology. And according to professor Abdulkarim, they have saved already 99 percent of the museum collections within Syria.

So much of what you see on the TV where you see statues, you see Nimrud, you see Palmyra being exploded — that's the outdoor archaeology which couldn't be hidden away. And it simply gets blown up by the Islamic State. But there are lots of very courageous people on both sides who are working against the grain to try and save this for better days.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff