Some Take Massive Risks To Save Syria's Cultural Heritage Reporter James Harkin traveled through war-torn Syria to witness how many historical treasures were destroyed - and how some people are scrambling to save what's left.
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Some Take Massive Risks To Save Syria's Cultural Heritage

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Some Take Massive Risks To Save Syria's Cultural Heritage

Some Take Massive Risks To Save Syria's Cultural Heritage

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

The conflict in Syria has also destroyed significant parts of that country's heritage - architecture, art, antiquities dating back more than a thousand years - in what some have called a cultural genocide. Journalist James Harkin spent time on the ground in Syria reporting on the race to save serious archaeological treasures. His story is in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine, and James Harkin joins us from London. Welcome.

JAMES HARKIN: Thank you. Thank you.

WESTERVELT: James, let's start off in the once-stunning city of Aleppo in northern Syria. I've been there. I remember wandering around Aleppo's cavernous souk marketplace. It's this amazing arched UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the 13th century. It was an amazing piece. You visited in peacetime and, more recently, during wartime. Tell us what you saw and what's left of this ancient marketplace.

HARKIN: It's a kind of wonderful natural archaeological maze in which you can get lost in the bustle. It was an amazing thing to behold, along with the famous mosque there, the Umayyad Mosque. And so to go back five years later and see the pummeling of this place and - you know, 1,000 of the market stalls in the souk have been reduced to nothing. One hundred-forty of the historic buildings have been, you know, tangled. The sound you can hear is the metal corsetry of damaged buildings twisting in the wind like sinister wind chimes. And so it was eerie, like the scene of a crime.

WESTERVELT: Walk us through another gem, the Umayyad Mosque. It's more than a thousand years old. Tells what shape it's in today and why.

HARKIN: The Umayyad Mosque is in very, very bad shape. The famous minaret is lying there in pieces. And in fact, one whole side of the whole mosque is in stones. It's in very, very bad shape. And what was famous about that mosque, or one of the things that was famous about it was its riches of Islamic art. And who knows where they are now?

WESTERVELT: Let's be clear, James. All sides have damaged Syria's heritage - ISIS, Assad's government forces, various rebel factions sometimes competing among themselves. But the self-described Islamic State has systematically and deliberately set out to destroy just about every piece of pre-Islamic treasure in their interpretation of the Quran. Tell us about Palmyra. This is another place we both visited in peacetime. It's an incredible sight, and it's now under ISIS control.

HARKIN: Absolutely. I think Palmyra has taken such a hit from all sides in some ways. You know, hundreds of Islamic State militants converged on the city. They took the city and they began holding not only the archaeology, but the people - including the staff, the archaeological staff - hostage. And famously, they gruesomely murdered the head of antiquities in that city, Khalid al-Assad.

WESTERVELT: Tell us about him and why he was killed.

HARKIN: Well, there are a number of reasons that were floated at the time. For a start, they simply don't like archaeologists. They see them as secular and idolatrous and part of a civilization that they find offensive. Another reason why they apparently killed Khalid al-Assad, according to some of his relatives, was that he refused to tell them where the archaeology was hidden because his staff has been very courageously involved in concealing some of it. A different story was told to me by professor Abdulkarim, who's the head of antiquities in Syria, who said that for some reason the Islamic State were convinced that there was tons and tons of gold in the museum in Palmyra. You know, Ma'amoun Abdulkarim, the archaeology professor, said you know, these people are crazy. They're stupid. There was no gold. But it's possible that they might have killed Khalid al-Assad because he refused to tell them where nonexistent treasures were that they were convinced - for their own paranoid reasons - that were there.

WESTERVELT: James, it's not all grim. You write that some of Palmyra's treasures that were moveable were taken to safekeeping before the city fell, and that even some - you know, a last truckload of artifacts was sort of pulling out of the city as it was falling to ISIS. Tell us about that.

HARKIN: Absolutely. And some very courageous people were involved in that. You know, one of the curiosities of the Syrian regime is that this regime thrives on the prospect of crisis. When I was in Damascus early in 2012, I was told by a friend of mine, a civilian, that the regime had already begun taking down the statues of Hafez al-Assad, the old dictator and the father of the current president. In other words, very early on this regime for its own authoritarian, slightly paranoid reasons had begun secreting all of this archaeology. And according to professor Abdulkarim, they have saved already 99 percent of the museum collections within Syria. So much of what you see on the TV where you see statues, you see Nimrud, you see Palmyra being exploded - that's the outdoor archaeology which couldn't be hidden away. But there are lots of very courageous people on both sides who are working against the grain to try and save this for better days.

WESTERVELT: That's reporter James Harkin. His story about saving Syrian antiquities can be found in the March issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Mr. Harkin, thanks for speaking with us and for your reporting.

HARKIN: Thanks, Eric.

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