From glory to ruin: Idlib's ancient civilisations ravaged by 13 years of conflict

Ruined tower in Idlib
5 min read
09 May, 2024

The Idlib governorate in northwest Syria is among the richest of the country's regions when it comes to its ancient history, containing around a third of Syria's major archaeological sites.

However, in the last 13 years of war, these sites — some of which are on the World Heritage List and date back to numerous different eras and civilisations — have been exposed to every manner of damage, vandalism, smuggling, and other violations.

Although international legislation exists to criminalise attacks on antiquities, the bombing of ancient archaeological sites which lie outside the control of the Syrian regime by its forces is the greatest cause of destruction to antiquities in the region.

"A growing number of people saw the search for potential 'treasures' and the riches they could bestow as an answer to the exploding poverty in the region, compounded by the lack of work opportunities"

The unregulated practice of digging operations for antiquities and unplanned construction has seen stones, which form part of ancient structures, broken, their distinctive features changed and their historic value stripped. 

Uncontrolled excavations

The phenomenon of random excavations rose after Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and the opposition factions gained control of the region in 2015.

A growing number of people saw the search for potential "treasures" and the riches they could bestow as an answer to the exploding poverty in the region, which was compounded by the lack of work opportunities. 

These individuals and groups exploited the general chaos and absence of monitoring, leading to archaeological and historic sites of incalculable value being desecrated and vandalised as people have sought to extract anything sellable for significant amounts of money.

In the course of these amateur digs, countless artefacts such as pottery and clay tablets dating back thousands of years have been broken or damaged accidentally. 

Unregulated excavations have been accompanied by a flourishing illicit trade in antiquities in northwest Syria, whereby an extensive network of excavators, smugglers and traders has taken shape, with artefacts being smuggled into Turkey and from there to Europe for sale on global black markets.

The ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria suffered huge damage during the Islamic State's occupation of the area [Getty]

Selling Syria's heritage for "vast sums"

Overnight, Anwar Al-Bakour's friend (41 years old) was transformed from a poor man desperately searching for a living to the largest antique merchant in the region after he managed to uncover a trove of archaeological artefacts which he then sold secretly for "a large sum".

This prompted Al-Bakour to start his search. He began digging for antiquities in the Afrin countryside, where he is currently displaced.

Al-Bakour goes out daily to search for rare items in historic archaeological locations, using a metal detector he bought on credit. He hopes that he will be able to pay for it after finding something valuable to sell.

However, although he has found many clay pots and bronze coins dating back to the Roman and Islamic eras, they haven't so far been of great value, he says, only selling for a few hundred dollars. He says the prices of the artefacts vary – some can be sold for astronomical prices, and some at next to nothing.

"The prices of Roman coins and antique figurines range between 500 and 100,000 dollars per piece, depending on the carvings, their age, and the metal they are made from," he explains.

Live Story

An Aladdin's cave in Al-Sahara village

The de facto authorities in northwest Syria have also got involved in archaeological excavations, said a local source from the Afrin area who works in food distribution (who preferred to remain anonymous), stating that leading figures from HTS had been using their own equipment to carry out excavations.

They would take control of an archaeological site and not allow anyone to approach until they had combed the area for artefacts.

Opposition factions stumbled across a vast treasure trove in Al-Sahara village in the countryside west of Aleppo — a series of caves filled with ancient artefacts, statues and gold coins.

The faction members transferred the dazzling horde to an unknown location. The source expressed his regret the priceless artefacts weren't placed in local national museums but sold for vast sums, which will only "increase the power of those authorities and their influence over the suffering people".

"If they (HTS) discover anyone else excavating, they will be arrested and detained by the de facto authorities, not to preserve the antiquities — but to confiscate what that person finds."

Archaeological sites have also suffered the wrath of the waves of displacement, as millions have been forced to flee their homes over the past years.

Due to the huge overcrowding in the IDP camps, dozens of displaced families from the rural areas of Hama, Idlib and Aleppo, have been forced to take up residence in archaeological sites, sheltering in temples, churches and other old buildings.

Lack of vision among de facto authorities

Ayman al-Nabu, the head of the Idlib Antiquities Center, says that the violation and damage to archaeological sites began with the bombing and continued with the encroachment of buildings and camps.

He said vandalism had damaged 60-70 of Idlib's archaeological sites, including Kafr Taqab, the Church of Saint Simeon the Stylite, Baqirha (a dead city), Deir Seita, Babisqa (a dead city), and Beshendentli, while, thousands of artefacts, cuneiform figures, silver and gold coins, and pottery were lost from the Maarat al-Numan and Idlib museums during various periods of bombing and military operations.

He explained that the duty to preserve artefacts and ancient sites lies with the government, who should enact measures to protect them and plan for their development.

Live Story

Nabu said that over 1,000 archaeological sites exist in northwest Syria, 40 of which are archaeological villages and registered on the World Heritage List.

There are also two major museums in the region, including the Maarat al-Numan Museum which has the second-largest collection of mosaics in the Middle East, and the Idlib Museum, which houses an important collection of cuneiform figures discovered by an Italian archaeological mission in Ebla a decade ago.

As northwest Syria's ancient heritage becomes increasingly marginalised and ignored, the fate of its antiquities remains one of the major challenges in its present and future.

Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-AwsatAl-MonitorSyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine

Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko