Protecting Syria's Antiquities from ISIS

A 2,500-person team has spent the past three years evacuating pieces from the country's national museums.
6:58 | 09/17/15

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Transcript for Protecting Syria's Antiquities from ISIS
The war against Isis is being fought in many ways. On the military front, on the propaganda front, and as you are about to see, in the corner of a dusty museum where people are risking their lives to save ancient artifacts before Isis can destroy them or sell them to fuel their campaign of terror. Here's ABC's Alex Marquardt. Reporter: Once known as the pearl of the east, Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. ? Reporter: We've just come through what was actually rather light security by the entrance to the old city. And today as life goes on here, for a moment you can forget that this is a country at war of more than four years. In the past few minutes, two large booms in the distance. The fighting raging all around this city. Just 15, 20 minutes away. War in Syria has already claimed 250,000 lives. Millions more forced to flee their homes. Now it's also a race against time to save the world's treasures from being erainsed from Syria forever. Isis spawned from the conflict in this region. They've made it their mission to destroy anyone or anything that stands against their extremist ideology. Isis proudly documenting their heartbreaking acts of destruction throughout the region. Cause Damascus is the most secure city in the country all the artifacts that are at risk are brought here to the national museum. We're on the way to meet the team whose job it is to rescue those treasures. The national mu seep has been closed to the public, eerily quiet. You see this case and all the other cases emptied out. Reporter: There is corner of the museum where the work is in overdrive. For these young archaeologists this is their front line against Isis. How valuable are these pieces in Syrian archaeology? Precisely. Reporter: This is from 3,000 B.C.? Yes. Reporter: These are some of the 300,000 objects saved from all over the country. This is a hive of activity, very methodical, but moving very fast. The last step, pack delicately into these chests to be taken to top-secret locations we're told are known only to a handful of people in Syria. All the artifacts we're seeing are from the eastern part of the country. This area has some of Syria's most important archeological sites and everything here was pulled out as Isis was advancing. The team fired on by militants last year as they frantically loaded the artifacts onto trucks. For the biggest items that can't be moved, cement boxes are being built around them. The work these archaeologists do often puts their very lives at stake. Just last month, professor Al Assad was publicly beheaded by Isis for refusing to swear allegiance and not revealing hidden artifacts. This garden is very important -- Reporter: The man leading this mission, Dr. Be a bule KARE Abdul Kareem. The strategy to hide objects. Because we don't know when the cites sister will finish. Reporter: While touring a third century reconstructed synagogue, Abdul Kareem tells us his mission is not political, despite working for the Assad regime. Your message is, we're trying to protect the world's heritage? Exactly. It's not just Syrian heritage. It's your heritage. You cannot disappear all civilization, jewish, Christian, Muslim. We have one humanity, civilization for all the people. It's our duty to preserve this together. Reporter: Sharing in that duty, even those who oppose the Assad regime. Both sides of the divide, they go out there and risk their lives. This link is going to be what we need once this conflict is over. Reporter: From Ohio, professor amaer Al azzam helps oversee a team of monuments men, volunteers working on the other side of the front lines, even undercover in isis-held territory. But 92 matter how hard they work to protect and track these items the global trade in looted antiquities is booming, fueled by demand from buyers abroad, as far away as London. Everyone here is probably going to be affluent and purchasing expensive things -- Reporter: Professor mark altawil is an expert in what he calls blood antiquities. The scale is massive. It's certainly funding a lot of armed groups or armed groups in the conflict. That to me is the great tragedy of this. The anent city ocif palmyra is their latest target. One of the most important archeological sites in the world. Criminal gangs taking advantage of the chaos, working with Isis to loot these sites. Isis S cultural heritage as exmightable resource. Isis loots what it can Isis will then destroy, for propaganda purposes, what it cannot order: Satellite imagery shows such sites covered in holes dug by looters, the proceeds being used to fuel the fixtremism. To Damascus to seeing done to rescue Syria's heritage. Be more reports of more pillaging and more destruction. He called himself the saddest antiquities director in the whole world. Of course we are sad. We are tired. But we need to be more strong. We need to have some hope. To continue our work. Reporter: I'm Alex Marquardt in Damascus. Our thanks to Alex Marquardt tonight. We want to tell you, you can immerse yourself in the streets of Damascus with an exciting new visual 3D experience we launched today. Check out Next on "Nightline," with

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