Cheikhmous Ali: the Syrian archaeologist who doesn’t take sides

As the fifth anniversary of the Syrian civil war approaches, he continues to document the destruction and looting of the country’s heritage from France and Turkey, with the help of a network of volunteers on the ground

by Vincent Noce, Victoria Stapley-Brown  |  10 February 2016
Cheikhmous Ali: the Syrian archaeologist who doesn’t take sides
Cheikhmous Ali. © Cheikhmous Ali
He is missing the boots, the hat and the whip, and one must admit that nature didn’t give him the figure that it gave Indiana Jones, à la Hollywood hunk Harrison Ford. Rather small and near-sighted, Cheikhmous Ali seems always to have an easy air and a warm smile. But when it comes to discussing the fight to save Syria’s heritage, which has been caught in the crossfire of a civil war that began five years ago this March, he speaks with a conviction that cannot fail to impress those who are prepared to listen. And listen they are, finally: he was recently invited to speak at the European Parliament.

Despite the dangers and the enormous difficulties on the ground, this 37-year-old, Syrian-born research assistant at the University of Strasbourg leads the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA), a network of scientists, journalists and citizens who document and disseminate information about the destruction and looting of Syria’s heritage. The group was founded by archaeologists in Paris, Strasbourg and Brussels in September 2011, shortly after the first massacres were committed by President Bashar Assad’s regime. Most of its members are still in Syria, and Ali and the other participants in Europe are all volunteers; the meagre funds that APSA gets in grants are reserved “to give means to the correspondents on the ground”, Ali said at a recent conference at the Drouot auction house in Paris on the trafficking of “blood antiquities”.

Syrian government forces in the northern city of Aleppo. AFP/Getty Images

Knowing the risks

You can imagine the risks that they are taking—for example, by photographing weapons positioned on cultural sites. “We are missing, however, data on the zones controlled by Daesh [so-called Islamic State, or IS], since we asked these regions to stop working or communicating [with us]; the risk of being decapitated is too great,” he says. Ali remembers, with emotion, the director of antiquities at Palmyra, Khaled al-Asaad, who was executed last August after refusing to leave a site to which he had dedicated his life. “He was a totally devoted man, warm and generous, always ready to welcome researchers,” Ali recalls. “He had already evacuated the essential parts of the museum’s collections towards Damascus. Before dying, he was tortured by Islamists who wanted him to confess where he had hidden treasure—an absurd rumour.”

APSA has developed training programmes for its “heritage surveyors” to help them learn conservation practices and technical knowledge, and Ali regularly organises workshops in Turkey—a major conduit for the trade in Syria’s looted antiquities. The organisation also verifies data before posting information on social media networks. “If necessary, we call upon specialists to identify works but also flush out the fakes,” he says.

Published in Arabic, English and French, APSA’s detailed reports form a cruel litany of murdered researchers, destroyed mosques, ravaged historic monuments and bombed museums. When asked if this sinister census does not amount to a demonstration of impotence, Ali says: “It’s a duty. This documentation, we gather it together to bear witness… but when the hostilities have ceased, it will help in arresting war criminals and reconstructing the country.”

Al-Maqdisi, who served as Syria’s vice-director of ancient heritage from 2000 to 2012, agrees. “We now have to think about the post-conflict [situation], to avoid it becoming a new catastrophe for heritage,” he says. Al-Maqdisi knows about this first-hand, having taught at Saint Joseph University in Lebanon and helped in the reconstruction of Beirut after its civil war. “Duty is the word; we have to have citizen initiatives, since the international community and Unesco are far from rising to the level before this humanitarian catastrophe. There are grand political proclamations but there is still a lot of hype,” Al-Maqdisi says. A specialist in the Levant in the third and second centuries BC, he regularly advises Ali on works. “I have great confidence in this young man,” he says. “He dedicates most of his time to this work, while he lives with some difficulty through small jobs, like most Syrian archaeologists around the world. Fortunately, France has done a lot in welcoming us.”

Yannick Lintz, who heads the Louvre’s Islamic art department, also holds Ali’s work in high regard. “I have a lot of admiration for him… for his courage and for the honesty that he shows in a very complex situation. That hasn’t made life easy for him,” Lintz says.

“Radiant personality”

Another scholar who lends her expertise is Sophie Cluzan, a curator in the Louvre’s department of Near Eastern antiquities who has led several archaeological missions in Syria. She describes Ali as “a radiant personality who avoids all manipulation from one side or another. For a long time, people refused to listen—he remained practically alone—and I am shocked to see that, still, today, he can be on the outside of major national missions to help Syria.”

Ali is distinguished by his lack of a partisan mindset. At the Drouot conference (Organising Against the Trafficking of Antiquities, 18 November 2015), he opened by saying: “It’s not only Daesh that is pillaging and destroying… of the six sites listed on Unesco’s World Heritage List, all of which have been affected to a certain degree, only Palmyra was under the fist of Daesh, and only for a short while. It’s important to say that the ancient city had already been looted when it was occupied by the Syrian army.” Ali insists on taking into account the full effects of the war, citing the destruction of the historic centre of Aleppo and the bombing of the Khan Murad Pasha collection of ceramics in Idlib by a Syrian aircraft. His mention of the US bombing of a site in the Aleppo region and Russia’s bombing of a Byzantine village also did not please some.

Today, though, the atrocities being carried out by Daesh have prompted government leaders to listen. “Everyone pillages to one degree or another,” Ali says, “but Daesh separates itself by putting the profits officially under its control, so well that it leaves written traces.” The US Department of State presented evidence confirming tax on excavations (20% of the value of the finds) at a round table talk at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last September. Antiquities, along with oil and arms, are three strategic areas in which IS is creating a monopoly.

Uncovering routes for illicit trade

Ali has retraced the routes that Eastern European gangs are using to move objects through Lebanon and Turkey. Small figurines and coins, which make up the majority of looted objects, are sold online. Major sculptures have gone to collections in the Gulf. It might be years or even decades before other major pieces are sold on the market, as was the case in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cambodia.

A native of Hassake, the eponymous capital of the north-eastern province in Syria, Ali has not seen his family for six years. The town is now controlled by Kurdish forces and the Syrian army after a series of bloody battles; IS is camped just to the south. Two-thirds of the 180,000 inhabitants have fled. Ali has lost friends and relatives. Having left for Damascus in 1996, he participated in several archaeological digs before continuing his studies in Strasbourg, where he specialised in ancient representations of architecture; his doctoral thesis is on monuments and fortifications shown on cylinder seals. He has also organised exhibitions on the traditional reed houses in the marshes of southern Iraq and even the place of iconography in the art of reconstruction—a glimmer of hope.

Destroyed buildings in Aleppo. Mustafa Sultan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies.

Accept cookies