Turkish-backed militias continue looting antiquities in Cafrin in northwestern Syria

CAFRIN, Syria — On Sunday, the Russian Ministry of Defense stated that militias affiliated with the Turkish occupation of Syria continue to illegally excavate archaeological antiquities in the city of Cafrin (Afrin) in northwestern Syria. The antiquities are then transferred to Turkey and sold on the black market.

The long years of war on the Syrian land left nothing but the dialogue of guns with stones and humans in order to write a new memory and erase another steeped in history.

Antiquities are one of the material memories of past peoples and their excavation, preservation, and investigation allows us to understand them. The decade-long civil war has taken its toll on this irreplaceable heritage. Individuals and gangs have destroyed or looted numerous Roman antiquities, including pottery and mosaics.

On Sunday, the Russian Coordination Center in Hmeimim handed over an artifact dating back to the Assyrian era of the first millennium BC to the National Museum in Daramsuq (Damascus). The artifact had been illegally excavated by armed groups to be smuggled and sold outside Syria.

In previous press statements to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, the Director General of the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities and Museums, Mahmoud Hammoud, said that there are thousands of pieces, perhaps hundreds of thousands, that were illegally extracted from archaeological sites and hills, transferred to neighboring countries and then distributed around the world.

The northwestern Syria region, especially the area between the governorates of Holeb (Aleppo) and Edleb (Idlib), contains forgotten cities and hundreds of villages listed on the World Heritage List in 2011 that date back to the Byzantine and Roman eras.

Screenshot of an illegal antiquities market on Facebook in 2019.

The Turkish occupation of Syrian territory has taken a toll on the rich cultural heritage of the country.

The areas under Turkish occupation since the country’s direct involvement in the Syrian conflict in 2016 have witnessed widespread looting and destruction of archaeological and cultural heritage sites. Gravesites and places of worship are desecrated and ravaged in the hunt for artifacts or precious metals.

Members of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) desecrated a Yezidi holy place, the Sheikh Ali shrine, in the village of Basoufan, south of Cafrin. The dome of the shrine was destroyed, and the tomb of Sheikh Ali exhumed in search of gold and artifacts. According to a local Yezidi, the shrine dates back to the first century A.D.

On several occasions, Turkish forces were directly responsible for the destruction.

Following its invasion of Cafrin in January 2018, Turkish forces built a military base on top of Jinderis Hill, an active archaeological site.

Also during the Cafrin invasion, Turkey significantly damaged Ain Dara, an Iron Age Syro-Hittite temple dating back to 1,300 B.C. Of no military value, and with no military presence, Turkish Air Force jet fighters reduced approximately 60% of the site to rubble, destroying the entire façade.

Ain Dara was later used by factions of the SNA as a live-fire training site in late November 2019. Not long after, one of the sites major elements, the basalt lion, was stolen by the Hamza Division, a member of the SNA.