Syrian Antiquities under Threat

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BYLINE: Patrick Cockburn The Independent

Islamic fundamentalists in Syria have started to destroy archaeological treasures such as Byzantine mosaics and Greek and Roman statues because their portrayal of human beings is contrary to their religious beliefs.

The systematic destruction of antiquities may be the worst disaster to ancient monuments since the Taliban in Afghanistan dynamited the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001 for similar ideological reasons.

In mid-January the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), an al-Qaeda-type movement controlling much of north-east Syria, blew up and destroyed a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa on the Euphrates.

The official head of antiquities for Raqqa province, who has fled to Damascus and does not want his name published, told The Independent: "It happened between 12 and 15 days ago. A Turkish businessman had come to Raqqa to try to buy the mosaic. This alerted them (Isis) to its existence and they came and blew it up."

Other sites destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists include the reliefs carved at the Shash Hamdan, a Roman cemetery in Aleppo province. Also in the Aleppo countryside, statues carved out of the sides of a valley at al-Qatora have been deliberately targeted by gunfire and smashed into fragments.

Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, general director of antiquities and museums at the Ministry of Culture in Damascus, says that extreme Islamic iconoclasm puts many antiquities at risk. Of the mosaic at Raqqa, discovered in 2007, he says: "It is really important because it was undamaged and is from the Byzantine period but employs Roman techniques. …