In Syria, Archaeologists Risk Their Lives To Protect Ancient Heritage : Parallels Academic "Monuments Men" have donned disguises and dodged snipers to help save their country's cultural riches from looting and destruction. Heritage experts warn the losses so far are incalculable.

In Syria, Archaeologists Risk Their Lives To Protect Ancient Heritage

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Next, we're going to meet some rebel fighters from Syria. They don't fight with guns, but with sandbags and cameras. They're on the front lines in a dangerous battle over Syria's cultural heritage. They face shelling and snipers. They have to outwit smugglers and jihadis, who have turned looting into a multimillion-dollar business. Some are calling them Monuments Men, for calling people who did the same kind of work during World War II. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from southern Turkey near the Syrian border.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: We meet Syria's Monuments Men in a hotel near the Syrian border. They are unlikely warriors, these academics in business suits. Before the war, they had quiet museum jobs with the government's antiquities department, and now they risk their lives to save Syria's heritage. Abdul Rahman al-Yehiya and Ayman al-Nabu lead a team of archaeologists and volunteers. They document damage to Syria's key heritage sites, protect what they can and track what's been lost, work that puts them in the line of fire.

ABDUL RAHMAN AL-YEHIYA: (Through interpreter) There was the danger of the snipers, the martyrs, the warplanes and the helicopters that drop barrel bombs.

AMOS: Dangerous work, says al-Yehiya, done in secret in rebel- and regime-controlled areas.

AL-YEHIYA: (Through interpreter) We wear normal clothes, but dress ready to run - jeans and sneakers so we can be light on our feet.

AMOS: And here's another disguise. Al-Nabu says his team often poses as antiquities dealers to document the looting.

AYMAN AL-NABU: (Through interpreter) I go to the smuggler. For example, say, I want to buy antiques. I go to him. I ask, what do you have? I want to grab them. I go take a picture of them.

AMOS: These lost treasures are catalogued on computer. One example, a mosaic dated to around 330 B.C., depicts the ancient city of Apamea in Syria. It's a desperate struggle to halt the enormous loss.

All of these things have been stolen.

AL-YEHIYA: (Foreign language spoken).

AMOS: "All of it is gone," says al-Yehiya, as he shows grainy photos gathered at great risk. But this week, something has been saved. For the first time, the Syrian team completed an emergency preservation of the Ma'arra museum. It's famous for an extensive collection of early Roman and Byzantine mosaics. The project has American partners, and one is the Smithsonian in Washington.

CORRIE WEGENER: I'm Corrie Wegener. I'm the cultural heritage preservation officer at the Smithsonian Institution.

AMOS: We met recently in the Great Hall of the Smithsonian Castle, where Wegener says she traveled to southern Turkey last summer for a workshop with the Syrian team, then shipped supplies across the Turkish frontier for the secret project - digital cameras, packing supplies and rolls of Tyvek, a protective synthetic sheeting often used in home building.

WEGENER: Large rolls to begin with and more has been purchased along the way.

AMOS: And so if some customs guy was looking of the Turkish border, would they say what are you guys doing?

WEGENER: I guess they would probably assume they were building a house. (Laughter).

AMOS: The Syrian team had to be quiet, too, so the museum wouldn't be targeted and looters wouldn't beat them to it. They needed a cover story why were they bringing in all this Tyvek.

AL-YEHIYA: (Through interpreter) There are a lot of people dying in Syria. So we said they are shrouds that you wrap the dead in.

AMOS: Tyvek? It's for housing.


AL-NABU: (Through interpreter) We said it's to wrap them like mummies.

AMOS: The protective sheeting was to wrap 1,600 square feet of ancient mosaics. The next step was to protect the museum itself, says Amr Azm, a Syrian archaeologist, who now teaches Middle East history in Ohio. He's another member of the team.

AMR AZM: We decide that the best way to do this would be to actually use a technique that was very commonly employed during the Second World War in Europe and the First World War and that's to sandbag.

AMOS: The sandbags are now stacked up the inside walls, shielding the mosaics along those walls from the blast of regime jets, barrel bombs and smugglers.

AZM: By covering them with tons of sand, essentially, it makes it that much harder for anyone to go into the museum and opportunistically loot it.


AMOS: To see what's at stake, step into a museum here on the Turkish side of the border, where artifacts are thousands of years old and the Roman- and Byzantine-era mosaics are bathed in soft light protected by museum guards. Just an hour's drive away in northern Syria, the mosaics are wrapped and sandbagged by archaeologists turned cultural warriors, fighting to preserve heritage against the ravages of war.

AZM: In many ways, they are the heroes of our story. They are the guys who risk their lives every day visiting archaeological sites. This comes from their era. This is their hometown. This is their museum. The connection is there. It's living.

AMOS: And it's a small victory in a long war of illicit trade and damage. By protecting what they can and documenting the loss, these Syrians hope that one day some of it can be recovered. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Gaziantep, Turkey.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.