Grave Robbers and Civil War Are Stealing Syria's History

Article excerpt

TELL MARDIKH, Syria -- Ali Shibleh crawled through a 2-foot-high tunnel until reaching a slightly larger subterranean space. He swung his flashlight's beam into the dark.

A fighter opposed to President Bashar Assad, Shibleh was roaming beneath Ebla, an ancient ruin that for several decades has been one of Syria's most carefully studied and publicly celebrated archaeological sites. He had just made another of his many finds; he lifted something resembling a dried stick, then squeezed it between his fingers and thumb.

It broke with a powdery snap. "This is human bone," he said.

Across much of Syria, the country's archaeological heritage is imperiled by war, facing threats ranging from outright destruction by bombs and bullets to opportunistic digging by treasure hunters who take advantage of the power vacuum to prowl the country with spades and shovels. Fighting has raged around the Roman ruins of Palmyra, the ancient city in central Syria, once known as the Bride of the Desert. And the Syrian army has established active garrisons at some of the country's most treasured and antiquated citadels, including castles at Aleppo, Hama and Homs.

The war has showed no signs of ending soon. A Syrian government airstrike on a heavily contested neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo killed at least 15 people Saturday, including nine children, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the air raid hit Aleppo's Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood, which rebels seized parts of last weekend after days of heavy fighting with regime troops.

That gain had been the latest opposition advance in an urban warzone that expanded last summer, when rebel fighters took control of several neighborhoods. Aleppo is Syria's largest city and a key front in the civil war raging between President Bashar Assad and those trying to overthrow his regime. For decades Ebla, not far from Aleppo, has been celebrated for insights it offers into early Syrian civilization. The scenes here today offer something else: a prime example of a peculiar phenomenon of Syria's civil war -- scores, if not hundreds, of archaeological sites, often built and inhabited millenniums back because of their military value, now at risk as they are put to military use once more. …