Conflict threatens Syria's archaeological heritage

With its ancient fortresses, castles, mosques and markets, Syria bears the imprint of millennia of Middle Eastern history. But the current uprising is threatening some of the world’s most valuable heritage sites.


On October 21, 2004, Syria's First Lady Asma al-Assad, looking resplendent in a black and red-trimmed graduation gown, received an honorary degree from the prestigious Sapienza University of Rome for her work in the development of archaeological studies in Syria.

In her acceptance speech, the Syrian First Lady expressed the hope that archaeological finds would “foster mutual respect for what human societies have achieved over the millennia across the globe.”

Barely eight years later – a negligible period in archaeological terms – some of the world’s most magnificent heritage sites have fallen victim to the collapse of mutual respect between the opposing sides of the Syrian uprising.

As the two conflicting camps in the 18-month Syrian uprising appear to be heading for the critical endgame, experts are warning that many of Syria’s ancient sites – including those on the UNESCO World Heritage list – are in peril.

In an appeal issued in May, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova expressed “grave concern about possible damage to precious sites” and called upon “all those involved in the conflict to ensure the protection of the outstanding cultural legacy that Syria hosts on its soil”.

Interpol has launched a search for a number of mosaics stolen from the ruins of Apamea in Syria's Hama province.

In May, Interpol joined UNESCO’s warning of “imminent threats” to Syria's cultural heritage, which is “particularly vulnerable to destruction, damages, theft and looting during this period of turmoil”. The international criminal police organization joined the Syrian National Central Bureau in Damascus in issuing a search for a number of mosaics stolen from the ruins of Apamea in Syria’s Hama province.

Situated on the crossroads of the ancient Orient and Occident, with the Levantine routes of the old Silk Road attracting all manner of art, commerce and culture - as well as conquerors and crusaders, Syria today bears the stamp of millennia of Middle Eastern history.

“The country has layers and layers and layers of civilisation. It’s one of the richest countries in the world in terms of heritage,” says Veronique Dauge, chief of UNESCO’s Arab States Unit. “Syria has six sites on the World Heritage list - which are the ones we tend to focus on - but it does not take away from the others. Syria also has sites on the UNESCO tentative list [that are still being considered] and there are numerous other sites across the country.”

Syria is probably the only country in the world where the political and commercial capitals – Damascus and Aleppo respectively – compete for status of world’s oldest continuously inhabited city.

But heavy fighting has gripped both cities as government troops and rebels engage in close-range urban warfare. Earlier this week, residents of Syria’s second city described fierce clashes between rebels and government troops near the Old City in the heart of Aleppo.

Called Haleb in Arabic, the Old City of Aleppo – dominated by an imposing 13th century citadel and a 12th century mosque – has been described as an evocation of The Thousand and One Nights.

It’s one of the six Syrian sites on the World Heritage list – and not the only one imperilled by the latest fighting.

Earlier this year, YouTube footage showed shelling damage to the walls of the Crac des Chevalier - a magnificent crusader-era castle overlooking the Jebel Libnan ash-Sharqiya (Anti-Lebanon Range) - that Lawrence of Arabia described simply as “the finest castle in the world”.

Fighting around Crac des Chevaliers

In an interview with the Associated Press in May, Bassam Jammous, general director of the Syrian Antiquities and Museum Department, said gunmen broke into the castle, threw out the staff and began excavations to loot the site.

Minefields of allegations and counter-allegations

Responsibility for the destruction of Syrian heritage sites is hard to apportion in a conflict where both camps have their own axes to grind and have proved adept at playing the blame game.

Syrian government officials blame rebels for damaging, looting or setting up bases at heritage sites. Opposition activists meanwhile say government troops are shelling ancient complexes and damaging structures to move tanks and set up temporary bases.

Most archaeologists and antiquities experts are careful to gingerly thread through the minefields of allegations and counter-allegations, keeping their message focused on the preservation of sites in a country that’s virtually impossible to access due to the security situation.

“Our main concern is that we don’t have information, it’s very difficult to get information,” said Dauge. “We rely on news reports and footage on the Web, but there’s no way we can verify it and check what’s happening on the ground.”

Keeping track on social media

But attempts are being made to keep track of Syria’s prized sites and to raise international alerts.

In a May 2012 report for the California-based Global Heritage Fund, Emma Cunliffe of Durham University listed 16 sites “known to have been affected by shelling” and two other sites “probably affected” by shelling.

The situation on the ground though is fluid and there have been attempts to monitor the damage on social media sites, such as a Facebook page set up by archaeologists to track reports of damage to Syrian heritage sites.

Among the more disturbing footage of heritage destruction to emerge over the past few months has been the shelling of the Qalat al-Mudiq, a 12th century citadel in Hama province. Online footage showed columns of smoke rising out of the imposing hill-top structure with holes punched into the ancient fort walls.

Qalat al-Mudiq
Screen-grab from YouTube video posted on a Facebook page dedicated to tracking the effects of fighting on Syrian heritage sites shows the apparent shelling of the historic Qalat al-Mudiq citadel in Hama.

Mathilde Gelin, a researcher at the Paris-based CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) and IFPO (Institut Français du Proche-Orient) has worked on the Qalat al-Mudiq site and was in Syria until a year ago when the security situation forced her – like many foreign nationals working on archaeological sites – to leave the country.

She now attempts to monitor the sites from outside Syria, but concedes it’s an uphill task. “In the Homs region, some sites are in a catastrophic situation. I heard certain places are being preserved either by guardians or employees paid by joint international missions,” said Gelin in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Lebanon. “But it’s really difficult to know what’s happening for two reasons – one, we can’t go in there and two, people inside Syria are afraid to talk on the phone”.

Can the human conservation spirit prevail?

Gelin distinguishes between what she calls “inhabited sites” - such as the Old Cities in Damascus and Aleppo or even the Qalat el-Mudiq, which is surrounded by villages - and “uninhabited sites”such as Palmyra in eastern Syria and the Crac des Chevaliers.

According to Gelin, both inhabited and uninhabited sites have reportedly come under fire. When pressed about why the latter have been damaged in the fighting, she replied, “That’s more difficult to say because we can only guess…maybe the opposition [fighters] take refuge there initially because they think it’s relatively secure - or it could be a way to attract international attention. For the government troops, it’s a way to show that nothing will stop them. In both cases, it shows their ignorance and total lack of respect”.

Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad may have talked about mutual respect in her graduation speech in Rome, but on the ground, Syrian troops have historically displayed scant regard for heritage sites.

At the height of the 30-year Syrian occupation of neighbouring Lebanon, which ended in 2005, the Syrian military infamously established base camps in a number of ancient Lebanese sites, such as the ruins at Beit Meri, a town overlooking the capital of Beirut. Between 1998 and 1999, a US expert witnessed Syrian soldiers with rockets and tanks “dug in amidst the mosaic floors and crumbling walls” of an impressive Roman/Byzantine villa complex at Beit Meri.

At least one archaeologist has specifically blamed Syrian government forces of directly hitting historic sites and either participating in or turning a blind eye to looting.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Spanish archaeologist Rodrigo Martin, who has led past research missions in Syria, said, “We have facts showing that the government is acting directly against the country’s historical heritage.”

The international community is familiar with the disastrous effects of conflict on historical sites especially after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, when Baghdad's famed antiquities museum was looted.

But history has also shown that even in times of conflict and unrest, the human commitment to conservation can prevail. During the 2003 Baghdad lootings, museum staff preserved ancient artifacts. During the late 1990s in Afghanistan, numerous prized objects were hidden from the ruling Taliban by loyal Kabul Museum officials.

The Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddha statues of Bamiyan has proved that ancient treasures that have withstood the ravages of history can be willfully destroyed within moments. But the current conservation efforts in and around the Bamiyan caves have also shown that with commitment and resources, the planet’s heritage can still be saved.

“There are many things that can be done after the conflict,” asserts UNESCO’s Dauge. “We can assist in making assessments, recovery plans, reconstruction, capacity-building and trying to find funding for all of the above. The preservation of historical sites is essential because they represent the soul of a nation and the collective memory of its people.”

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