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Experts say innumerable ancient treasures of Syria are lost

May 16, 19:56 UTC+3 ST. PETERSBURG
‘Black archeologists’ started their activity in Syria after funds transferred from France and Italy to protect archeological excavations were frozen as a result of imposed sanctions
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© Konstantin Leyfer/TASS

ST. PETERSBURG, May 16. /TASS/. The exact amount of Syria’s ancient treasures that have been lost cannot be estimated, as apart from the treasures that have been destroyed or stolen, items getting into the hands of ‘black archeologists’ have disappeared without a trace, Russian experts say.

"The situation in Syria has been tragic from 2012, when a civil war had not started yet, but funds transferred from France and Italy to protect archeological excavations were frozen as a result of sanctions," academician Nikolai Kazansky, director of the Institute for Linguistic Studies, told a news conference on Monday.

"Since that time, ‘black archeologists’ started their heavy activity, everything was being looted in a most outrageous way," Kazansky said. "It is impossible to exactly estimate the damage from their activity, but the scope of losses is huge," he noted.

Sergey Frantsuzov from the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts confirmed that the problem of illegal archeological dig is very acute for Syria as well as for Yemen whose monuments are also in danger. "Black archeologists are doing huge damage to Yemen," he said, noting that this came because whole regions in the country were not accessible for official archeology. "I think that more than half of all finds in Yemen were made by black archeologists," he told the news conference at the TASS office in St. Petersburg.

He said plunder of archeological monuments would be discussed at a conference on cultural heritage, due in St. Petersburg on May 19-20 and bringing together scientists from Russia, Syria, France, Iraq, Georgia, Germany and the Netherlands. It will focus on the problem of heritage conservation in the conflict zones in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

According to historian Alexey Yankovsky, one of the organizers of the conference, the problem also is that unprofessional digging often destroys cultural layers and the monument itself. Some of the monuments plundered in the Middle East are "lost for future archeologists" for this reasons. "Unfortunately, there are monuments among them that saw no proper excavation work at all - this is utmost loss. The percentage of such losses is big - it is a catastrophe," the historian noted.

Russia helps Syria's authorities fight terrorists and has conducted mine clearing work in the ancient city of Palmyra.

Palmyra, built in an oasis in the Syrian desert between Damascus and Euphrates, used to be one of the richest cities of late antiquity. UNESCO placed its archeological rarities and monuments on the list of world cultural heritage and historic sites in 1980.

An almost year-long reign of the Islamic State terrorists there left the place severely damaged. The demolished the city's most ancient monument, the Temple of Bel built in 32 AD, the Temple of Baal Shamin, the Palmyrene tombs, the Arc of Triumph and the statue of the Lion of al-Lat.

Experts of the Russian Armed Forces took part in designing the operation to drive the Islamic State out of the city, which was often referred to in travel books and tourist guides as 'the Venice of the sands'. Crews of the Russian Aerospace Force made about 500 combat sorties while the Syrian government troops were recapturing the place.

Talks between Russia and UNESCO on rehabilitation and restoration of the city are underway. According to Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, they are making fair progress but difficulties have surfaced, too.

Apart from the State Hermitage Museum, which boasts one of the largest and highly diversified collections in the world and is an important museum research center, readiness to contribute to the restoration of the majestic ancient city has been expressed by the Dmitry Likhachov Institute for Research into Cultural and Natural Heritage (the Heritage Institute).

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