The civil war in Syria threatens not only the country’s inhabitants, but its rich cultural heritage as well. In an amateur video published several days ago by one of our Observers in Palmyra, a city in central Syria, manhandling and possibly looting archaeological treasures.
The video was uploaded by Abdellah al-Tadmoury, the director of the opposition’s communications centre in Palmyra. Abroad, Palmyra is best known as being home to a 6-kilometre-square archaeological site with relics from the second century, listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
Al-Tadmoury told us that, last week, a soldier deserting from the army gave him his phone’s memory card just before leaving town with some rebels from the Free Syrian Army. The man, he said, barely had the time to specify that his memory card contained images from his brigade in Palmyra. FRANCE 24 was given several of these videos. On one of these, a brigade from the regular army is shown patrolling the Palmyra archaeological site. Another video features the same group of armed soldiers breaking into a house. And then there was this video, where uniformed men manhandle what appear to be rare archaeological artefacts.
The men featured in the video do not hesitate to pose for the camera and ask to be filmed between the sculpted stones (0'57). According to al-Tadmoury, the deserting soldier had to leave the city immediately after giving him the videos and therefore did not explain the context of the videos, including whether he filmed them himself or whether they were sent to him by colleagues.
We can confirm that, according to the data on the original video files, the images were recorded on a mobile phone on February 18 — several days after the regular army entered Palmyra, according to the opposition.
After analyzing these images, a FRANCE 24 journalist from Syria concluded that these men are probably soldiers from the regular Syrian army, as they repeatedly use the term of respect “Sidi.” (0’41 and 1’08) This is used in the Syrian army to address one’s superiors. In contrast, in the Free Syrian Army, the combatants call each other “brother” or “comrade.”
The archaeological site is “controlled by the regular army”
French archaeologist and Syria expert Mathilde Gelin told FRANCE 24 that the artefacts the men are handling on the video resemble Palmyrian archaeological artefacts. She says some of these pieces are conserved in the Palmyra museum, which is located close to the archaeological site, while some more artefacts can be found on-site, and are easily accessible as they are out in the open.
According to al-Tadmoury, the Palmyra site is currently surrounded by barricades and checkpoints set up by the regular army. He says the soldiers control the entire zone between the city and the archaeological site. “It is accordingly impossible for anyone — and much less members of the Free Syrian Army — to gain access to this zone,” says al-Tadmoury. One of the videos in his possession, found on the same memory card, indeed confirms the presence of the regular army on the site of the Palmyrian ruins.
At 0’22, one of the uniformed men points out a piece and asks his colleague: “They wanted this one, right?”, which suggests that the pieces were moved and possibly passed on to others. We contacted the Syrian embassy in France to check whether the soldiers deployed in Palmyra had any orders with regard to these pieces, but we have not yet heard back.
From the information we were able to gather, it is impossible to determine whether pillaging was taking place. However, this video is being aired at a time when more and more people are calling for the protection of Syria’s national heritage, which risks being degraded or damaged during the civil war. Pillaging has already been reported in other Syrian cities, notably in Homs. Interpol was warned last May of the theft of extremely valuable mosaics that decorated the ruins of Apamea, in the Syrian northwest.