With Islamic State group militants on the doorstep of his hometown in eastern Syria, Yaroob al-Abdullah had little time. He had already rushed his wife and four daughters to safety. Now he had to save the thousands of ancient artifacts he loved.
In a week of furious work in summer heat, tired and dehydrated from the Ramadan fast, the head of antiquities in Deir el-Zour province and his staff packed up most of the contents of the museum in the provincial capital. Then al-Abdullah flew with 12 boxes of relics to Damascus.
The pieces included masterpieces: A nearly 5,000-year-old statuette of a smiling worshipper. A colorful mural fragment from a 2nd-century temple for the god Bel. Thousands of fragile clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing, including administrative records, letters and business deals that provide a glimpse at life nearly 4,000 years ago in the Semitic kingdom of Mari.
The move, carried out in 2014, was part of a mission by antiquities officials across Syria to evacuate everything that could be saved from Islamic State extremists and looters. The extent of the operation has been little known until now, but its participants described to The Associated Press a massive effort — at least 29 of Syria’s 34 museums largely emptied out and more than 300,000 artifacts brought to the capital.
The pieces are now hidden in secret locations known only to the few specialists who handled them, said Maamoun Abdulkarim, who as head of the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Damascus oversaw the operation. “Other than that, no one knows where these antiquities are — not a politician, not any other Syrian.”
There’s much that couldn’t be saved. The damage is most symbolized by Palmyra, the jewel of Syrian archaeology, a marvelously preserved Roman-era city. IS militants captured it last year and proceeded to blow up at least two of its most stunning temples. Over the weekend, Syrian government forces recaptured Palmyra from the militants and discovered they had trashed the city museum, smashing statues and looting relics — though fortunately about 400 pieces had been hidden away by antiquities officials before the IS takeover.
Across the country, the destruction has been tragic. Wherever they overran territory in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State jihadis relentlessly blew up, bulldozed or otherwise tore down monuments they consider pagan affronts. They and other traffickers have taken advantage of the chaos from the 5-year-old civil war to loot sites and sell off artifacts. Even in the museums that were evacuated, some items were too large to move — giant statues or ancient gates and murals — and fell into IS hands, their fate unknown.
But the 2,500 archaeologists, specialists, curators and engineers with Syria’s antiquities department, including some who defected to join the opposition, have often risked death to protect what they can.
One 25-year-old woman led a military convoy carrying antiquities out of the northern city of Aleppo, a major battleground between rebels and government forces. Out of fear for her safety, she requested anonymity.
Guards at archaeological digs and other sites in areas now under IS control secretly keep tabs on the ruins and feed Abdulkarim photo updates on WhatsApp. Several of them have been killed. Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra’s retired antiquities chief, was beheaded by the extremists in August after spiriting away artifacts from the city’s museum.
Ziad al-Nouiji, who took over from al-Abdullah as head of antiquities in Deir el-Zour, brought a second load of relics to Damascus last June. But otherwise he has remained in the government-held part of Deir el-Zour city.
He knows the danger: IS militants besieging the area are hunting for him, posting his name on their Facebook pages as a wanted man. He relocated his family abroad but is staying put. “This is my duty, my country’s right. If we all left the country and our duties, who would be left?” he asked.
In the rebel-held northwestern city of Maarat al-Numan, archaeologists affiliated with the opposition protected the city’s museum, which houses Byzantine mosaics. There the danger was from government airstrikes, so they erected a sandbag barrier with financial and logistical support from former antiquities directorate chief Amr al-Azm, who sided with the opposition. Last June, just after the sandbagging was complete, a government barrel bomb damaged mosaics in the outside courtyard, he said.
“The heroes here are the Syrian men and women on both sides who … are willing to risk their lives for their heritage,” al-Azm said by telephone from Shawnee State University in Ohio, where he teaches. “That’s what gives me hope for the future of Syria.”
The antiquities authorities didn’t take any chances, even clearing museums in government-controlled areas. At the National Museum in Damascus, the halls and galleries have been empty since the artifacts were hidden away in 2013 for fear rebel shelling could hit the building. In the pottery room, dust rings mark where the pieces once stood and only the labels remain.
In 2014, with EU funding, the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO began training Syrian staff in storing artifacts and helped establish a nationwide system to document their inventory. In Damascus last month, a team of archaeologists and archivists was still processing the collection brought from the Daraa Museum in southern Syria.
“With a good team, a charismatic leader and our support they managed an extraordinary feat,” said Cristina Menegazzi, head of UNESCO’s Syrian heritage emergency safeguard project.
A vital crossroads throughout history, Syria holds a legacy from multiple civilizations that traded, invaded and built cities across its territory — the Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians of ancient Mesopotamia, various Semitic kingdoms, the Romans and Byzantines, and then centuries of Islamic dynasties. The country is dotted with “tells,” hills that conceal millennia-old towns and cities, some of which have been partially excavated and many more that are still waiting to be discovered.
Deir el-Zour, a region along the Euphrates River, is rich with such sites.
Among them is Mari, the capital of a kingdom dating back to the early 3rd millennium B.C that grew on trade between Mesopotamia and the Levant for more than 1,000 years until it was crushed by the Babylonians. Its trove of thousands of tablets in the Akkadian language has given archaeologists a rich picture of the era. Upriver is Dura Europos, a city that grew under Roman rule in the early centuries A.D. — and its ruins revealed evidence of perhaps the earliest use of chemical warfare, when Parthian invaders apparently used sulfuric smoke to smother Roman defenders during a siege.
In this rich environment, al-Abdullah and his peers grew up amid a heritage that inspired them to display such bravery.
The 48-year-old al-Abdullah said he developed a passion for archaeology as a child watching American and French excavators work in the ruins of Terqa, an ancient city buried under his hometown of al-Asharah. He later led 10 archaeological expeditions along the Euphrates.
In the summer of 2014, IS militants declared their “caliphate” stretching across parts of Syria and Iraq. They swarmed over 90 percent of Deir el-Zour province and — shortly after al-Abdullah’s emergency museum evacuation mission — took part of Deir el-Zour city.
Al-Abdullah, now the head of the Damascus museum, says it was as natural to save his hometown’s heritage as it was to save his daughters.
“People who worked in digging know what it is like to look for a certain piece and then to find it,” he says. “We consider this piece as one of our own children. As we fear for our children and family, we fear for those antiquities.”