Museums – University of Copenhagen


There are conflicting reports about the extent of looting and destruction of museums in the most troubled parts of Syria. Social media groups have provided photos, images and reports about the looting of around 12 museums. However it has not been possible to verify this information on the ground. Also there is a dominant impression among experts that the reality of the situation is hard to assess and that allegations were exaggerated for obvious reasons, but unofficial material may contribute to a better knowledge of the extent of the damage and allow a professional assessment when they finally have the chance to assess the situation on the ground.

In February 2013, a UNESCO workshop dedicated to illegal trafficking in Syria took place in Jordan and was attended by academic and government organizations from various countries. During the workshop, officials from the DGAM stated: ‘We emptied Syria's museums; they are in effect empty halls, with the exception of large pieces that are difficult to move’. Officials also confirmed that tens of thousands of artifacts had been transferred to private stores to protect them from looting and avoid a repeat of the events in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion. The DGAM report of February 2013 reconfirms that all archaeological artifacts and historic art has been removed to safe and secure places, and they have increased the number of guards and installed burglar alarms in some museums and historic buildings.

International organizations have also been cooperating to try and help protect Syrian cultural heritage. INTERPOL is continually informed about any missing artifacts and is compiling photographs of objects believed to have been illegally looted from archaeological sites in Syria. A panel of international experts from ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) and ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) has also organized an e-learning course entitled ‘Ways and Techniques for Protecting Cultural Heritage in Times of Conflict’ in order to enhance awareness and provide training for Syrian nationals.

Within Syria, The Ministry of Culture, DGAM and other authorities such as the army, police, customs department, and local municipal authorities are cooperating to protect historic sites. Thanks to these actions, stolen antiquities have been returned after confiscations in Damascus, Tartus, Palmyra, Homs, Hama and Deir ez-Zor among others. Around 4000 items have so far been confiscated including beads, coins, statues and mosaic panels, although some objects have turned out to be fakes.

On the 14th of July 2011, an Aramaic gold-plated bronze statue dating to the 8th century BC was stolen from the museum of Hama. In December 2012, the statue was put on INTERPOL’s ‘Most Wanted Works of Art’ poster and on the 21st of May 2012, the organization also called for vigilance with regard to looting of ancient mosaics in Syria ( Sadly, the DGAM declared in February 2013 that the statue stolen from the Hama Museum is still missing.

UNESCO has repeatedly called on the international community to help protect Syria's cultural heritage, and in May 2012 INTERPOL’s General Secretariat also warned of ‘imminent threats’ to Syria’s heritage, which is vulnerable to ‘destruction, damages, theft and looting’ during this period of turmoil. The organization called on all of its 190 member-states to tighten import controls to prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural goods from Syria and its neighboring countries and offered to create a database of the stolen works of art to ‘facilitate the identification and recovery of stolen Syrian artifacts’. The first artifacts added to the Syrian database were mosaics stolen from the ruins of Apamea stored in the city of Hama. The database also includes statues and other marble objects looted from the garden of the Apamea museum, fragments of unique Byzantine mosaics and other objects stolen from the archaeological site and the museum of Maʿarrat al nūʿmān. These looted pieces are listed on INTERPOL’s red list.

In May 2013, a recent updating of the DGAM report mentioned items seized by the police on the borders between Syrian and Lebanon. The smuggled items came from a number of archaeological sites in Syria and were of various dates. This has increased concerns that looting, to various extents, is widespread across the country.

The DGAM has confirmed that the Aleppo museum is safe and has not suffered serious harm. Moreover all its objects have been shipped out to a secure place. However the report mentions some damage due to bombings and fighting in neighboring areas. At the Qala’at Jabar museum in Raqqa, the DGAM reports that seventeen pieces of pottery as well as some clay dolls were stolen from the exhibition hall. Activists have suggested the number of looted items is much higher, but this has not been verified.