Situation of Syria’s ruins, archeological sites and museums

Syria's Director General of Antiquities and Museums Dr. Mahmud Hamoud speaks to Syria Times on the situation of Syria’s ruins, looting of archeological sites and museums, the government’s efforts to rebuild and protect the country’s heritage. 

Q: Commenting on the looting of Syria’s antiquities and archeological sites, pre-2011 and after the 2011 crisis in Syria, Dr. Mahmud Hamoud answered:

A: “The international museums of Louvre, Metropolitan and others have looted antiquities form the Arab orient. The Ottoman State was giving licenses to the foreign and European archeological missions to excavate the Syrian cultural monuments. Most of the archeological finds were taken by these missions to their countries’ museums.

Before the crisis there was looting of course especially of ruins as it is easier to loot them however there was a fierce crackdown from the Syrian state and looting operations almost came to a stop.

After 2011, many areas went out of control of the Syrian government. This increased the illegal excavation and digging operations in approximately 10.000 known archeological site.

The terrorist groups carried out wide illegal diggings, for example, they demolished a whole building only to get to a stoned crown.

The governmental occupation armies of Turkey, France, America are carrying out excavation and digging operations in Raqqa, Deir Ezzour and north Aleppo.

Nowadays, the Turkish army and archeological authorities are carrying out wide digging operation and looting in Efrin region, northwest of Aleppo.

The Syrian local communities played a negative role by informing and guiding the terrorist groups to the archeological sites.”

Q: Where are the Syrian looted antiquities smuggled to? What does the Syrian government and General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums do to restore them? 

A: “I can say 70% of the looted Syrian ruins and antiquities went to Turkey. The looted antiquities from Dara’a and Quneitra went to Jordan and Israel. Some looted antiquities went to Lebanon.

The Lebanese government cooperates with the Syrian government in a very good and positive way. Lebanon returned hundreds of the looted Syrian antiquities.

The Jordanian government promised the Syrian government to return the confiscated looted Syrian antiquities.

The United Nations Security Council issued two resolutions, No. 2299 in 2015 and No. 2247 in 2017 to restore the looted Syrian and Iraqi antiquities to Syria and Iraq but the world countries didn’t implement these resolutions. Till today, the Turkish government has refused to return the looted Syrian antiquities and ruins which were confiscated by the Turkish government.”

Q: How did the international organizations and agencies help the Syrian government to rebuild and renovate cultural monuments in Syria? What does your Directorate do?

A: “After the liberation of any archeological site from the terrorists, the General Directorate for Antiquities and Museums sends emergency archeological teams to evaluate the damages and work hard to fix and rebuild what we can do according to our financial potentials. The Directorate’s budget is not enough to rebuild and renovate all Syria’s archeological sites and museums.

We communicate with the international organizations and agencies to help us. During my latest visit to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNSCO) which is based in Paris,  I briefed the participants in the UNSCO’s meetings on what we are doing to protect the Syrian archeological sites which are listed on the UNSCO’s Protected International Heritage Lists. The UNSCO organized training courses for the Syrian local diggers and archeological teams.

Russia is doing good work in Syria and is supporting Syria’s right to regain its looted antiquities in the international arenas.

On 25 November 2019, in Damascus, I signed an agreement with Mikhail Piotrovsky, General Director of the Russian State Hermitage on the restoration of the monuments of Palmyra.

China helps us in training Syrian archeological teams. Nowadays, there is a Syrian archeological exhibition in Beijing.” 

Q: What are the archaeological missions currently operating in Syria? what are their nationalities? What about the Syrian local missions?

A: “Currently, there is a Hungarian archeological mission working in the Castle of Krak des Chevaliers and the Castle of Margat (known as Marqab).

There is a Czech archeological mission which will work next spring in Tal Al-Shamyat in Lattakia. An Italian team from the Italian Paolo Matthiae archeological mission which also will work in Tal al-Saleheen in East Ghouta next spring.

We don’t have enough money, financial potentials , and technical experience to depend only on the Syrian archeological missions.

The Syrian diggers have been trained in Japan, Germany, Hungary, Czech, Italy and other states and they have good experience but we don’t have enough numbers of diggers. The total numbers of the working staff, including guards and administrative staff at the General Directorate of Antiquities,  are about 2300 workers and employees, about 100 are diggers and technical workers. We need more and more diggers, excavators and archaeologists to cover the Syrian archeological sites.

Q: Why does the Syrian Ministry of Education not teach the subject of antiquities in its school curriculum?

A: “The Ministry of Education should encourage the teachers and administrative staff to take their students to visit the Syrian museums to know more about the Syrian antiquities and ruins.

We asked the Ministry of Education to hire the graduates from the Faculty of Antiquities and Ruins to be teachers of history and ruins in the Syrian schools in order to teach students more about the Syrian antiquities and ruins.

The Ministry of Education added some lessons of antiquities to the 10 Grade’s history book. We hope to do the same thing to all grades and introduce more lessons of antiquities on the Syrian curriculum.”


Interviewed by: Obaida Hamad /Inas Abdulkareem

Photos by: Obaida Hamad