Islamic fundamentalists in Syria have started to destroy archaeological treasures such as Byzantine mosaics and Greek and Roman statues because their portrayal of human beings is contrary to their religious beliefs. The systematic destruction of antiquities may be the worst disaster to ancient monuments since the Taliban in Afghanistan dynamited the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001 for similar ideological reasons.

In mid-January the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), an al-Qa’ida-type movement controlling much of north-east Syria, blew up and destroyed a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa on the Euphrates. The official head of antiquities for Raqqa province, who has fled to Damascus and does not want his name published, told The Independent: “It happened between 12 and 15 days ago. A Turkish businessman had come to Raqqa to try to buy the mosaic. This alerted them [Isis] to its existence and they came and blew it up. It is completely lost.”

Other sites destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists include the reliefs carved at the Shash Hamdan, a Roman cemetery in Aleppo province. Also in the Aleppo countryside, statues carved out of the sides of a valley at al-Qatora have been deliberately targeted by gunfire and smashed into fragments.

Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, general director of antiquities and museums at the Ministry of Culture in Damascus, says that extreme Islamic iconoclasm puts many antiquities at risk. An expert on the Roman and early Christian periods in Syria, he says: “I am sure that if the crisis continues in Syria we shall have the destruction of all the crosses from the early Christian world, mosaics with mythological figures and thousands of Greek and Roman statues.”

Of the mosaic at Raqqa, discovered in 2007, he says: “It is really important because it was undamaged and is from the Byzantine period but employs Roman techniques.”

Syria has far more surviving archaeological sites and ancient monuments than almost any country in the world. These range from the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus with its magnificent eighth-century frescoes to the Bronze Age Ebla in Idlib province in north-west Syria, which flourished in the third and second millennia BC and where 20,000 cuneiform tablets were discovered. In eastern Syria on the upper Euphrates are the remains of the Dura-Europos, a Hellenistic city called “the Pompeii of the Syrian desert” where frescoes were found in an early synagogue. Not far away, close to the border with Iraq, are the remains of Mari, which has a unique example of a third-millennium BC royal palace.

Unfortunately, many of the most famous ancient sites in Syria are now held by the fundamentalist Islamic opposition and are thereby in danger. Professor Abdulkarim says that it is not just Isis but “Jabhat al-Nusra [the official affiliate of al-Qa’ida] and the other fundamentalists who are pretty much the same”.