Political crises and massive uprisings in Syria and Egypt are not only taking a toll on human life, public resources, and economic well-being — they’re also contributing to an unconscionable desecration of history.
Syria, a cradle of ancient civilization, may have more important archaeological sites than any other country in the world — but formerly pristine sites that were identified but not yet excavated are starting to look like moonscapes as prospectors armed with bulldozers and automatic weapons search for valuable artifacts to sell on the black market — destroying every hint of historical context along the way. The Roman city of Apamea is a current target, and invaluable sites like Aleppo, Mari, and Ebla are also endangered. Most of the looted goods are fenced through black marketeers in Turkey and Lebanon.
In neighboring Jordan, the threat is not civil war but an unsteady economy and the hope of quick riches. Local legend has it that the Ottoman Turks, who ruled the area from 1516 to 1918, owned mounds of gold, much of which they buried before fleeing British forces. It’s also believed that supernatural powers like genies guard some of the gold, leading looters to cite exorcism verses from the Quran while prospecting.
In Egypt, looters have taken advantage of the current chaos not only to dig in poorly protected sites, but to attack and clean out state-owned warehouses of artifacts, or to brazenly rob museums of precious treasures. While they make a few dollars from the robberies, operators at the top of the chain can make many thousands of dollars on a single prize sold to wealthy collectors.
Meanwhile the world’s cultural heritage is impoverished.
For most people reading this, there is little we can do other than shake our heads in dismay and (hopefully) pledge that we will never purchase looted artifacts — but we might also want to stop for a moment and think about how we look at our own past, and to be careful about what we trash, and what we treasure.