Near eastern archaeology is arguably one of the most developed in the world. Longstanding research traditions have helped highlight the role of this area within major phases in the (pre)history of mankind. This has led to the development of archaeological and preservation/conservation projects, through the collaboration of international and local teams. In Syria, almost every archaeological period is represented by a range of sites, more than 6000 were recorded in 2010, each contributing in their unique ways to our understanding of the past. Archaeologists have witnessed evidence of Lower Palaeolithic, modern humans walking out of Africa, the development of early agriculture, irrigation systems, urbanism and writing systems, in places such as ‘Umm el Tlel, Abu Hureyra, Hamoukar, Ebla, Palmyre and Damascus. The country also currently has 6 UNESCO World Heritage sites: Damascus (1979); Palmyra (1980); the ancient city of Bosra (1980); and Aleppo (1986); the Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din (2006) and the ancient villages of Northern Syria (2011).
According to Bruce G. Trigger in his book, “A History of Archaeological Thought”, published in 2006, acknowledging the precious nature of their cultural heritage, most Arab and Muslim countries have created complex bureaucratic systems in order to protect. In Syria, the legislation regarding the antiquities defines issues such as ownership and compensation as well as the features which constitute an “antiquity” in the first place (i.e. any goods manufactured, produced, written, or drawn that are older than 200 years old, as well as any other goods that would not fit this category but would have an important historical status). These objects cannot be owned by individuals and are the inalienable property of the State. The Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) provided an officious structure for the preservation and study of this material. However, there are some issues, partly inherent to the nature of this kind of structure. The lack of security in some of the regional museums, the limited inventories and, in general, the poor documentation of the collections lead to unsteady situations in times of trouble, which put the cultural heritage of these countries in great danger (as already seen in Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, or again, in Hama, Syria, in 1982).
The Syrian revolt developed in the context of the Arab Spring, even though it has to be understood in its own socio-political context, with its own mechanisms. The contestation against the Baath regime of Bashir el Assad started around February 2011 when Hasan Ali Akleh set himself on fire in the town ofAl Hasakah. This provoked the unrest to transform into an armed rebellion, severely repressed by the government and consequently leading to the death of at least 7,500 people. In this environment of turmoil,Syria’s cultural heritage is also subjected to great danger.
—Bastien Varoutsikos, Harvard University.