Systematic excavations of archaeological sites

A number of sources report that numerous archaeological sites in Syria are being systematically targeted for clandestine excavations by well-organized and often armed groups, not all originating from Syria.

Excavated archaeological objects of cultural significance make a lucrative trade for unscrupulous dealers operating both locally and abroad, and this explains why archaeological sites located near Syrian borders are particularly vulnerable to traffickers. There are reports that Syrian cultural objects are being offered to the international art market.

Warning - latest news from Syria

January 2014

  • Recent evidence of illegal excavations and looting of the Apamea archaeological site in the Syrian province of Hama. Photo gallery

November 2013

  • The Tell Merdikh archaeological site in Ebla, in the Idlib region, has been subjected to illegal excavations and looting. Photo gallery

October 2013

  • Clandestine excavation and looting has damaged monuments and Syria's heritage in the El-Jabel Aalaa, Baricha and Wastani (part of the Ancient Villages in the north of Syria). Photo gallery
  • El-Jabel Zawia (part of the Ancient Villages in the north of Syria) has had archaeological layers permanently destroyed due to vandalism and looting in different parts of the site. Photo gallery
  • Illegal excavations and looting in the Palmyra archaeological site, in the region of Homs, including in the 'Greek House' and the Camp of Diocletian. Photo gallery

Dead Cities © UNESCO

Below is a non-exhaustive overview of the major archaeological sites based on information received before August 2013.

Idlib region

In the same region, the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, have been extensively damaged. Many churches have been destroyed, and their altars have been particularly targeted by looters.

Kafar Oqab appears to be the site that has been most devastated in the region. Sites situated near the borders are, in general, more susceptible to being targeted by looters who take advantage of their location to quickly and illegally export artefacts out of Syria.

Deir ez-Zor region

Dura-Europos © UNESCO/Prof. Abdulkarim

All the sites in Deir ez-Zor region have suffered illicit excavations and looting, while local and foreign dealers are already reaping the rewards.

These threats are particularly acute in Dura-Europos where reports of groups systematically carrying out illegal excavations of the site using electronic equipment in order to steal antiquities. There has been so much illicit digging that the structure of the site has become compromised, specifically the towers and the tombs.

In the same region, the site of Mari has also been repeatedly targeted by armed gangs. Reports suggest practically the whole site has been illicitly excavated and extensively looted causing irreparable damage to some of the temples and part of the Royal Palace.

Other sites affected by the looting include the sites of Tell Sheikh Hamad, Halabiya, and Bassira.

Raqqa region

Many sites have been looted, notably in Tell Al Bay’ah which, according to Syrian sources, has had its archaeological layers permanently destroyed.

Aleppo region

The site of Tell Qaramel is at the centre of what can only be qualified as looting on an industrial level, as heavy machinery has been deployed to accelerate the excavation of the site. The use of this type of machinery does not bode well for the security of historical and cultural heritage in Syria.

Hama region

The site of Apamea is without doubt the site that has suffered the most at the hands of looters according to Syrian sources and satellite images. The rapid progress made by looters suggests they are extremely well-organised and determined.

Daraa region

The sites in the Yarmouk valley, notably Tell al-Ash-ari, have been plundered by hundreds of people hired by gangs, intent on trafficking Syrian cultural property.

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