Lion of Afrin: Victim of Archaeological Mafias and War Criminals

Recent footage of a military exercise by a pro-Turkish militia (National Liberation Front) who established a shooting range against the archaeological hill of Ain Dara in the occupied Afrin province invaded and controlled by Turkish forces and their proxy militias last year, revealed the tragic disappearance of the famous historical masterpiece known as The Lion of Afrin. Although it was not immediately clear what exactly had happened to the monumental statue, it is widely believed that the artefact had been stolen by pro-Turkish looters and almost definitely smuggled across the border into Turkish mainland.

Ain Dara itself was targeted by Turkish jets in 2018 as Turkish units and their proxy forces advanced on the area known for its archaeological wealth that featured one of the world’s oldest temples often compared in significance to the Temple of Solomon. Christian Maronite came from this region and the shrine of their most sacred saint Mar Maroon is located in the area. The historical site including the temple itself was destroyed in the Turkish airstrike. Very few important artefacts escaped destruction including the invaluable and unique Lion of Afrin which has now been stolen and reportedly smuggled into Turkey, in a blatant violation of international law and UN relevant resolutions prohibiting the vandalism, theft or trading in archaeological artefacts.

Mount Ain Dara: Bleeding Stones that Breathe History

Since it took control of Afrin in 2018 having defeated and expelled Kurdish YPG and other militias in the region, Turkish forces and their affiliated militias have conducted systematic excavations in the province which included Prophet Hori  (Cyrus) classified by UNESCO among Syria’s most important archaeological sites. A Russian TV channel screened a report headlined “A Call to Save Them” explaining the enigma and secrets surrounding “portraits of Prophet Hori” and questioning the possibility of the masterpieces being sold outside Syria.

One of the most important hills located some 8 km (5 miles) from Afrin city centre, Ain Dara excavations previously conducted by Syrian, local Kurdish authorities, as well as some foreign archaeological missions including an American team, supervised by Elizabeth Stone and Paul Zemanski which the Acropolis since 1956 have yielded astonishing findings and revealed forms of some of the world’s oldest settlements. The Ain Dara site derived most of its archaeological fame from its unique Temple which dates back to the end of the Bronze Age around 1250 BC. The edifice is considered a rare Hittite relic of international proportions, often compared in its plans, beautiful ornaments and grandeur to the Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem.

More than a Lion in Captivity: Archaeological Vandals

The basalt Lion sculpture which was discovered in 1956 is 3.30 meters, and the material used is identical to that used in ancient similar artefacts. The top part of the Lion indicates that it might have been integrated into the entrance of one of the architectural monuments or edifices since the role of this type of sculptures was guarding the gateways of places of special significance. Decorative works ornate only one side of the statue; the other side where it was connected to a wall, base or column was left plain. On December 20th, the Turkish army and its mercenaries attacked Afrin with tanks, artillery and jets causing massive destruction of the city.

During the ISIS and al Nusra radical Islamist contamination and ruthless reign in many Iraqi and Syrian provinces, irreparable damage was done to several museums, historical sites, artefacts and monuments. As if that wasn’t enough, occupation forces completed the unfinished shameful job which is a blot on the face of humanity, a disgrace to the international community and UN-affiliated organizations and bodies in charge of preserving world heritage. Culprits should be prosecuted and brought to justice with harsh deterrent sentences, for the damage of their crimes exceeds by far the massively lucrative thefts they carry out as individuals or states.

One such heinous crime took place in February 2018, when Turkish bomber jets attacked the archaeological Ain Dara hill destroying its Temple along with unique archaeological traces such as the massive footprints on the site. The disappearance of the Lion of Afrin marks another war crime against Syrian history and humanity at large, whether it was committed by Turkish occupiers, their proxy gangsters, a local, regional or international archaeological mafia which have ravaged and plundered much of Syrian and Iraqi museums, historical artefacts and unparalleled human heritage. The exact whereabouts of the Lion of Afrin are not known, but the scars its theft are bound to leave might be as long and deep as the history of the masterpiece itself.