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Protecting ancient treasures from becoming casualties in Iraq and Syria

September 24, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
Northern Iraq boasts thousands of archaeological sites dating to the beginning of civilization, and they are being destroyed by the Islamic State militants. Meanwhile, more than three years of civil war in Syria has laid waste to much of the country's ancient history. As part of our Culture at Risk series, Jeffrey Brown talks to researchers who are on the frontlines of preservation in the face of war.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to another form of destruction taking place in Syria and Iraq, that of history itself.

Jeffrey Brown looks at that side of the story, part of his series Culture at Risk.

JEFFREY BROWN: On a site dating back to the 8th century B.C., this mosque in Mosul was celebrated as the final resting place of the biblical prophet Jonah. In July, it was blown up by militants from the Islamic State group.

Since taking control this summer of much of Northern Iraq, a region boasting thousands of archaeological sites dating back to the beginnings of civilization, the group has destroyed invaluable cultural relics in spectacular fashion.

Abdulamir Al-Hamdani is an Iraqi archaeologist now studying at New York’s Stony Brook University.

ABDULAMIR AL-HAMDANI, Stony Brook University: I have been in touch with my colleagues, friends in Mosul museum and the university, and I hear the terrible news and been very shocked for them. It’s really a disaster. You know, they say we cannot see Mosul without that shrine.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the militants, it’s a bald statement of control and brazen destruction of religious and other sites in conflict with their interpretation of Islam.

Just across the porous border in Syria, the three-and-a-half-year-old civil war grinds on. Nearly 200,000 are dead and millions more have been displaced. And much of the country’s history spanning across millennia, languages, and religions is being laid waste.

AMR AL-AZM, Shawnee State University: The damage is almost incalculable.

JEFFREY BROWN: Amr Al-Azm is an archaeologist and member of the Syrian opposition who teaches at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

AMR AL-AZM: The damage is great. And I think, you know, Syrians will spend years to come trying to work out how much was lost, and not just for Syrians, but I think also for the rest of the world as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Syria’s central region, the ruins of the ancient oasis of Palmyra, which date back to the 1st century A.D., have been damaged by mortars and shelling, as government and rebels jockey for position.

Outside of Homs, the Krak des Chevaliers, a castle built by European crusaders in the 12th century, is a United Nations World Heritage Site, now bearing the scars of war.

CORINE WEGENER, Smithsonian Institution: It’s one of the biggest problems to confront the cultural heritage community in decades.

JEFFREY BROWN: Corine Wegener is a cultural heritage preservation officer at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

CORINE WEGENER: This is ancient Mesopotamia, the land of the first cities, you know, some of the first writings. And it’s really the cradle of civilization that we’re talking about. And once we lose these archaeological sites, we don’t know what kind of information and knowledge that we’re losing forever.

JEFFREY BROWN: Aleppo, thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, has suffered terrible damage. Its medieval marketplace, another recognized World Heritage Site, was set ablaze in 2012. And it along with the old city and citadel have been badly damaged by fighting and nearby bombings.

Watching the destruction from above, Susan Wolfinbarger heads the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

Through a new National Science Foundation grant, Wolfinbarger, Wegener and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are using satellite imagery to document intentional destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, in places too dangerous to visit.

SUSAN WOLFINBARGER, American Association for the Advancement of Science: We want to construct a timeline of what’s happening at thousands of important sites across Syria, so that we can have a very clear idea of what’s happened when. And this will be important down the road because we believe that there will be a lot of international attention once the conflict ends in terms of litigation and prosecution.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the destruction goes beyond collateral damage and intentional acts. Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department released these before-and-after satellite images showing ancient grounds in Syria. At Dura-Europos, a Hellenistic site in Eastern Syria, for example, the image shows a pockmarked landscape, thousands of holes in the ground illustrating another erasure of history, illegal excavation and looting.

Amr Al-Azm says as the conflict has dragged on, the looting has become far more sophisticated and destructive.

AMR AL-AZM: In the beginning of the conflict, going to back to 2011, maybe, you know, late 2011, and for probably much of 2012, it was mostly opportunistic. But what are seeing today now, in 2014, is far beyond just opportunistic looting. We’re looking now at organized, almost industrial-scale looting in some cases. And that’s what’s really, really dangerous.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there are reports that the Islamic State group, also called ISIS or ISIL, is allowing and indeed profiting directly from the looting and sale of stolen antiquities.

In an effort to slow that market, the U.S. State Department joined others in issuing a so-called red list of Syrian cultural objects at risk ceramics, mosaics, sculptures and more, to help art dealers, museum directors, law enforcement and others identify plundered objects that may come their way via the black market.

But the destruction and threat continue. And the world is taking notice. Secretary of State John Kerry sounded the alarm this week at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: We gather in the midst of one of the most tragic and one of the most outrageous assaults on our shared heritage that perhaps any of us have seen in a lifetime. Ancient treasures in Iraq and Syria have now become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, Syrian archaeologists and curators on the ground are working to protect what they can. This summer, a group of them, their faces blurred here for their protection, came across the Turkish border for a training session with Amr Al-Azm, Corine Wegener and others.

AMR AL-AZM: The training focused on showing these activists and these museum staff how to pack items, how to pack artifacts in boxes, how to wrap them, how to record the activity, how to make sure that everything is documented.

CORINE WEGENER: Worst-case scenario, you know, maybe all you have is a container or a cardboard box or something, and you fill it with sand, and you put the objects in around the sand, because that’s at least going to keep it from being broken until you get where you’re going if you have to evacuate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sandbags in the dirt, satellites in the sky, brave men and women on the front lines still working to protect and preserve their own and the world’s history.

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