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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Syrian Treasures Destroyed

Sep. 11, 2015

Refugees from Syria are abandoning a country torn apart. Their heart-breaking plight has hit headlines as the crisis deepens. Back where was once home for the refugees, militants are taking sledgehammers to history. Syria's famous archaeological treasures have been preserved for thousands of years. But as civil war rages, cultural heritage sites are being flattened.

Syria has six World Heritage sites, including the ancient cities of Palmyra and Aleppo. People around the world watched in horror as temples in Palmyra were blown up.

Islamic State group militants seized the ancient city in May. Palmyra has temples and amphitheaters dating back to the Roman Era.

Last month, the militants bombed and destroyed the Temple of Baalshamin. It had survived for nearly two thousand years in excellent condition.

The Islamic State group is targeting one cultural heritage site after another as members follow its extremist interpretation of Islam. Before blowing up the temple, the militants murdered the respected former head of the Palmyra Museum, Khaled al-Asaad.

The United Nations used satellite images to confirm that most of the Temple of Bel was gone. It was one of Palmyra's, and Syria's, finest ancient structures.


Youssef Kanjou is a Syrian archaeologist and a former Aleppo Museum Director. Mr. Kanjou has been in Japan since 2013 to conduct research and shared his views with Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Beppu: Mr. Kanjou, you knew the late Khaled al-Asaad well. It must be shocking to hear of his death, as well as to see all the destruction in Palmyra.

Kanjou: Yes, it was so shocking for us. Not just for the archeologists in Syria but all the archeologists around the world. Mr.al-Asaad was like an icon of Palmyra. He did many things for Palmyra and Syrian archeologists. For this reason it was very sad, very sorrowful for us and that was a very sad message from IS to the world as Mr. al-Asaad was famous outside Syria and inside Syria. They want to make all the community, international and national community, to be very sad by this way of killing Mr. al-Asaad.

Shibuya: Mr. Kanjou, can you tell us how the militants are justifying all this destruction?

Kanjou: They said there are many reasons. They said the archeology, like the temple, the object, is anti-Islam. Then they try to practice their ideology as extremists. They want to invite their militants, they want to get more propaganda for them. Then they made two methodologies to destroy the archeological site. One thing is by bombing and that makes a big propaganda for them. The second thing is illegal excavation. The illegal excavation is to get more material to get money. Both things are the opposite way. They said the archeological site is not good for Islam but at the same time they give permission for illegal excavations to get money from the site.

Then they want to make money, propaganda, more funds for them. In the same way, they take Palmyra which is a very rich city in heritage and they start the destruction. The first thing is they kill Mr. al-Asaad as he is a symbol of Palmyra. After that, they start with the temple, the Temple of Baalshamin and the Temple of Bel, after that they start the tower tomb. That is by bombing but sure, they are looting the city because there are many rich graves, many materials and they can get a lot of money.

Also, Syria is a very rich country because of its position. Syria has two things that are very important: The first thing is the geographic position. The second thing is the long history. Both make it a very rich, cultural country. As a mosaic culture, we have in Syria many ethnic groups. Not just Muslim people in Syria, not just Arab people in Syria, we have Muslim, Christian, we have more than 10, 11, 12 different ethnic groups in Syria. Then IS wants to destroy this demography, this mosaic, and make Syria just one ethnic group, just one religion and like their ideology, they want to change our history, they want to change the demography, they want to change everything as their extremist ideology.


The world is focused on Palmyra, but it's one of several hotspots. Other sites are suffering not only at the hands of extremists, but by intense fighting between the Syrian government and rebel forces.

Ancient Aleppo is one of the oldest cities on Earth. The World Heritage site once served as an important link between Mesopotamia and Europe. It is taking a hit as fighting rages.

Satellite photos show Aleppo before and after the war began. There's a huge crater. A section of wall at the Citadel of Aleppo has fallen down. And this was a lively souq, or open-air marketplace.

The looting situation is also dire. Satellite photos show Dura Europos in eastern Syria. Countless holes appeared after the fighting began. The UN speculates the holes aren't the result of bombs but looting. Photos show people with metal detectors conducting illegal excavations.

The Syrian government has seized more than 6,000 stolen items. So many groups are involved in the looting and smuggling that it's hard to put an accurate number on what's been taken. The UN has made repeated calls for all fighting forces to preserve cultural treasures like Palmyra.

"We have the responsibility to protect and preserve it,” said Irina Bokova, Director-General UNESCO. “Destroying heritage will not achieve anything."


Beppu: How systematic do you think the extremists are when they carry on this looting?

Kanjou: In this video, we see one example.

Beppu: They are pouring water on the mosaic.

Kanjou: Yes, to make the material clear, to get a good price, to get it bright, the color of the mosaic. That is one example of how they are looting. This is very interesting, a very important mosaic from the Hellenistic or Roman period maybe. They want to try to sell at the same time they want some people they want to protect this material.

Beppu: This looks like an official document. What is this?

Kanjou: That is how they start to destroy the heritage in Syria. The extremists give permission to excavate it, they want to give permission for a special person to get more material, the person who belongs to the group. That is one of the reasons that destroys the heritage in Syria.

Shibuya: Mr. Kanjou, what needs to be done now?

Kanjou: The first thing we need is a ceasefire, without a ceasefire in Syria, we can do nothing. The second thing is we need the international community. The international people who buy the material from Syria must stop buying the Syrian archeological material. After that, we need help. We need appeal from the international community to rebuild our heritage. But I want to say one more thing. The Syrian heritage, Syrian history is for all human history, not just for Syria. For this reason, it is important for all to stop this war. And we know the conflict in Syria is not just between Syrians, but all the international community. If they can stop this war then after that everything will be easy.