Amid a two-year bloody civil war that has killed an estimated 70,000 civilians and left 2.5 million people homeless, a profound loss of another kind has unfolded inside Syria – an attack on the country's cultural heritage, as missiles demolish ancient sites and looters steal artifacts as old as civilization.
More than 12 of the country's 36 museums have been raided and at least six historical sites have been damaged – including the Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers – since the uprising began in March 2010, according to several international groups tracking the destruction.
Aleppo – one of the most beautiful cities in the Middle East and a crossroads of Christian, Jewish and Arab cultures – is among the hardest hit by the fighting between regime forces and rebels.
In the nation's capital of Damascus, once described by Mark Twain as the city that "has seen all that has ever occurred on earth," historic buildings and landmarks are at increasing risk of damage.
"It’s painful to see the bombardment of the oldest city in the world and the theft and destruction that has followed," said Abdal-Razzaq Moaz, Syria’s former deputy minister of cultural heritage, who escaped the country in January and is now in the U.S. teaching at Indiana University.
Moaz said some of the earliest objects stolen include a golden statue from the Aramaic period – snatched from the museum in Hama in July 2011. Ancient figurines were taken from the museum in Apamea, and tablets and pottery dating back to the third millennium BC were seized last May from Qala'at Jabar Museum in Raqqa.
Other missing artifacts of immeasurable value include at least 30 carpet mosaics from the Roman period. Moaz told FoxNews.com that eight of the mosaics have since been seized by Lebanese authorities at the border.
Much of the theft also includes illegal digging at major archeological sites, where cash-strapped Syrian rebels have reportedly made off with gold, statues and other treasures that can be sold on the black market.
The rebels, meanwhile, blame the Syrian government for much of the looting and damage to historical sites that have become battlegrounds for fighting. Local activists, for instance, claim President Bashar Assad's regime destroyed the 12th century al-Madeeq Citadel, knocking out entire walls with bulldozers during fighting in March 2012.
Several international organizations are involved in recovering the stolen artifacts, including UNESCO, INTERPOL and the International Council of Museums, which has created an emergency "Red List" of cultural objects at risk.
Daniel Thorne, chairman of the California-based Global Heritage Fund, said the illegal antiquities trade is rampant and sophisticated – especially in a war-torn country with deteriorating security.
"These things aren’t sitting in someone’s house in Damascus or Aleppo," Thorne told FoxNews.com. "They are clearly being taken out of the country and into underground art-dealing networks."
"The artifacts end up in places where there are collectors and money," he said. "People interested in classical Greek and Roman art are mostly Europeans and Russians – not so much the Chinese."
While Thorne said it would be a "devastating loss" if such ancient artifacts were never recovered, he said experience shows that over time such valuables are often reclaimed, especially with the aid of advanced databases and groups whose mission is to track stolen art.
"It may take 100 years or more to find all of these stolen artifacts and restore them, but as we’ve seen in recent times, sooner or later these things end up in a museum or at auction," he said. "The key thing in my mind is that they exist somewhere and they can be found."