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Syrians Take Drastic Measures To Hide Antiquities Amid ISIS Takeover


In Syria, ISIS fighters have targeted the country's antiquities. They've defaced monuments they consider offensive. They've looted precious items and sold them on the black market. Maeva Bambuck of the Associated Press has reported on a massive effort in Syria to evacuate museums and hide some 300,000 artifacts. She told us that 2,500 archaeologists and other specialists worked with the Syrian government to pull off the project under threat from ISIS all the while. I asked her to describe what was at stake.

MAEVA BAMBUCK: From Deir ez-Zor province, the main items that were brought back were about 16,000 clay tablets that used to be used as letters, really. They mention trade. They mentioned business deals. They are almost 4,000 years old.

CORNISH: The people involved in this mission essentially risk being targeted by ISIS. Tell us about one of the participants that you got to know and sort of, like, what motivated them to do this despite the danger.

BAMBUCK: Those archaeologist who wanted to rescue those items - they grew up with a love of that heritage. So people like Yaroob al-Abdullah, which - who's the first person that I met, I found him quite impressive because he's a very normal guy.

He works in the National Museum today, but he was one of the first guys who flew items back to safety of on a military plane. He took with him 13,000 items. And he grew up in a little village which is near the river where they found a lot of antiquities, a lot of items from previous civilizations. So I think that's what inspired them to dedicate so much and to sacrifice so much.

CORNISH: What are the risks that people are up against when they participate in this effort, right? They're also trying to protect their own families. They're also trying to stay safe. What are the different dangers they face in doing this?

BAMBUCK: It depends. The war has been going on for some time. And the urgency with which they started hiding away those artifacts - it changed when they found out that the Islamic State was actually looting and destroying items. So a lot of those people who work in the countryside for the antiquities department - they already took measures to protect themselves and their families. So the people I spoke to in Deir ez-Zor - they had already asked their families to leave the province.

CORNISH: What do people say to you about sort of what motivates them to do this?

BAMBUCK: Well, they all told me this is our duty. I think one thing to take away from this is that none of the people I spoke with for this story are profoundly politically motivated. They seem to be just passionate that their cultural heritage. All of them told me about the joy of finding an old relic in the ground or describe with love a favorite piece that was saved.

And I think they realize that it could all go away when we see what happened in Palmyra. Inside the museum, I think 20 statues were defaced. Of course, the Temple of Bel was completely destroyed. Thousands and thousands of years of history can go away in one bomb blast, in attack, and they all did all they could to make sure that didn't happen under their watch.

CORNISH: That's Maeva Bambuck of the Associated Press. She reported on a massive effort to save Syrian antiquities. Thank you for speaking with us.

BAMBUCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.