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Six months ago the city of Maarat al-Nu'man was still functioning. Today it's rubble. It's a process that has played out over and over across Syria.
MAARAT AL-NU’MAN, Syria — Empty concrete plinths, now robbed of their ancient treasures, shuddered with each explosion. Signs labeling first century coins and pottery sat below empty shelves. Mosaics dating back to the time of Christ lay scattered across the courtyard. Through the crumbling walls, smoke rose in the distance.
This was the once famous Alma Arra Museum in Maarat al-Nu’man, Syria. It is now home to a handful of rebel fighters. Ammunition and tools for cleaning weapons now lay in the courtyard. Army fatigues and medical supplies are stored on top of a 5th century limestone mosaic.
Across town, the city’s 900-year-old Great Mosque is also in ruins. The ancient citadel bears scars from the shelling that has bombarded this city since it came under opposition control in October.
“The first time I came here and saw this destruction I felt so disheartened,” said one of the museum’s Free Syria Army guards, Abdullah al-Allam. “These precious things that tell the history of our city — the Christian and Islamic eras — all stolen, destroyed … I feel so sad inside.”
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Throughout Syria, as war rages, hundreds of historical sites and thousands of priceless artifacts are being lost. Indiscriminant shelling has already damaged UNESCO World Heritage sites in Aleppo, Dara, Hama and the Dead Cities of Jabal al-Zawiya. Museums, mosques and churches have been looted, many of their artifacts taken outside Syria and sold to help fund the rebellion.
A report by a group known as the Syrian Historical Heritage Under Threat, an international nongovernmental organization, listed 12 museums throughout Syria, including the museum in Maarat al-Nu’man, that are under threat.
The same report listed 24 archeological sites, 11 centuries-old fortresses, 14 historical mosques, five ancient churches and four historical districts threatened by a combination of aerial bombings, illegal excavations, looting, vandalism, illicit trafficking of cultural property and the installation of heavy weapons.
Refugees have also taken up residence in formerly protected World Heritage Sites for protection.
Government authorities and opposition forces blame each other for the damage.
Al-Allam said he was among the first on the scene when the Free Syrian Army took control of the Alma Arra Museum in October.
“The Assad army used this museum as a checkpoint,” he said. “When we arrived we found all the artifacts were missing. Everything that remained is still here on site. Nothing has been removed since then.”
Press reports days after opposition forces seized control of the town, however, noted that many artifacts were still there and have since disappeared under the rebels’ watch.
In a report for Agence-France Press, Herve Bar described “pottery, ceramics and figures of the pre-Islamic era dating from 3,000 to 2,000 BC” being among the remaining museum treasures.
“The insurgents accuse the army of stealing some items, including ancient early Islamic era coins, but surprisingly most of its priceless collection remains intact,” Herve wrote.
Video footage posted on YouTube around the same time show museum display cabinets full of artifacts that have since vanished.
Archeologist Rodrigo Martín, who works for the Syrian Historical Heritage Under Threat organization, said the likelihood of tracking down any of these artifacts is slim.
“All the major sites are at risk,” he said. “Syria’s insecurity has led to illegal excavation, which is destroying unexplored sites. We hear rumors of gunfire and shelling even around Palmyra. We will only know the true extent of the damage when we can enter the country and examine each site thoroughly.”
Although the smaller artifacts are long gone, Alma Arra Museum still contains much of its collection of mosaics, which once amounted to 2,500 square meters, the largest collection in the Middle East. Many lay covered in rubble. Others are pockmarked with bullet holes or cracked from shelling.
The Free Syrian Army guards say their mission is to prevent further damage and theft.
Al-Allam told the story of two missing mosaics that were recovered by the Free Syrian Army from government soldiers — the Mosaic of Hercules and the Mosaic of Venezia.
Both are now back on site with minor damages, but the shelling of the city continues and elsewhere in the country, new clashes continue to chip away at Syria’s historical heritage.
Archeologists like Martín can do nothing but attempt to calculate the loss.
“Of every chapter in the history of mankind there was a page written in Syria,” he said. “The material destruction of such cultural richness is damaging the very identity of the Syrian people.”