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Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Ruins

Great Umayyad Mosque after the bombing. (Photo by George OURFALIAN / AFP)

The war in Syria, which has raged on since 2011 – resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths and more than 4 million Syrians seeking refuge in neighbouring countries – has had another devastating effect.

The country’s rich cultural heritage, representing a variety of civilizations that had existed in Syria, from the Bronze Age to the Roman Empire, the Crusaders and the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, has been severely affected. Ancient temples, mosques, churches, kasbahs and castles have been damaged or destroyed, and archaeological excavation sites and some of the country’s museums have been looted.

In the summer of 2014, UNESCO put Syria’s six World Heritage sites on its list of sites that are in danger. Moreover, with the ongoing devastation of its magnificent sites and looting of artefacts, Syria’s future as a post-conflict tourist destination is at risk.

Syria’s Cultural Heritage Under Fire

The most obvious effect of the war is the structural damage to many of Syria’s sites under shelling and bombing during fighting between government and opposition forces.

Syrian cultural heritage sites under threat / Situation as of November 2014 (Source Fanack, BBC). © Fanack 2014

The ancient city of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, experiences some of the heaviest fighting in the war, being on the frontline of the conflict. At the centre of the ancient city, the citadel rises 50 metres above the surrounding area and dates to the 10th century BCE or even earlier and stands on the remains of buildings from the Hittite, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk and Ayyubid periods. The surrounding walled city from the same period includes mediaeval gates, 6th-century Christian structures, streets from the Roman period, Ayyubid and Mamluk mosques and many houses and palaces from the Ottoman period. The area is subject to heavy fighting and shelling by tanks and artillery.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an international non-governmental organisation, documents, using satellite images, the damage to Syrian heritage sites.

It notes that much of the heaviest damage was concentrated in the area south of the citadel, which includes several government buildings and other historical structures. The Great Mosque, founded in the Umayyad period and rebuilt in the 12th century, has sustained significant damage. Its minaret, dated to 1090 CE, was destroyed in spring 2013, as were the prayer hall and the main gate of the mosque. According to UNESCO, the mosque’s courtyard and all of its decorative elements have suffered severe damage. Parts of the historic souk (suq al-medina) was destroyed in a fire in 2012, and more than 1,500 shops were destroyed. UNESCO notes that the citadel and its surroundings continue to be at high risk, as it is being used for military purposes; bombs placed in tunnels have already caused severe damage.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, at least 1,400 mosques have been damaged or destroyed throughout Syria.

Another site that has been severely affected is the ancient city of Bosra in the governorate of Daara, which is well known for its major archaeological site, with remains from the Roman (including a theatre of the 2ndcentury CE), Byzantine and early Islamic periods. The area has been subject to increasing violence during the conflict; since August 2012, there have been reports of damage caused by shelling and bombs. Several monuments, including the al-Omari Mosque (720 CE), one of the oldest in the world, the Nymph temple, the Saint-Serge cathedral and the al-Fatemi Mosque have been damaged, according to UNESCO. Satellite images also show evidence of roadblocks, earthen fortifications, destroyed buildings and a hole in the al-Omari Mosque, evidence that the area was bombarded by mortars.

Bosra is another of the many sites in Syria that have been used for military purposes (by both government and opposition forces), putting these sites at further risk of damage. The Roman theatre at Bosra has reportedly been used by snipers shooting from the site. Crac des Chevaliers (Qalat al-Hosn), a castle from the 11th century CE (in the Crusader period), with its key defensive position, has been at the centre of extensive fighting between government and opposition forces. The castle has been targeted by shelling and airstrikes carried out by government forces since the Free Syrian Army has been using the site and has sustained significant damage: the inner and outer walls have been damaged or destroyed, as have staircases, decorations and the Church, which was damaged in a fire.

The monumental Greco-Roman and Persian ruins of Palmyra, one of Syria’s major tourist attractions before the conflict, also have sustained significant damage. The site has been in the midst of intense fighting and has been used for military purposes. The area has been subject to heavy shelling from March 2013 onwards, and reports have indicated the presence of tanks and rocket launchers inside the archaeological site. The AAAS notes that extensive defensive road construction has taken place throughout Palmyra. Palmyra has also been the target of deliberate destruction by the extrmist Islamic State (IS).

The Ancient City of Damascus, on the UNESCO World Heritage list as well, has been largely protected from the violence in the outlying neighbourhoods, according to the AAAS. The area has been firmly under government control throughout the war. The outskirts of Damascus have been heavily damaged, but no major signs of conflict have appeared in the Ancient City, despite isolated incidents. UNESCO has, nevertheless, added the Ancient City to its list of endangered sites.

Looting amid chaos

The Syrian cultural heritage is further at risk from illicit excavations and organized looting of ancient artefacts from archaeological sites, monuments and, to a lesser extent, museums. All parties in the Syrian civil war – government troops, opposition forces and Islamic State (IS) – have used the chaos and lack of security at heritage sites to illegally excavate and loot the sites. A sophisticated network of smugglers and dealers is responsible for the illegal export of artefacts to neighbouring countries and the West, where they are being sold on the black market or in auction houses. While the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has officially committed itself to protecting heritage, individual fighters have admitted to participating in looting to cover the costs of war.

Holes and trenches resulting from illegal excavations in Apamea (Source Google Maps)

With the economy having collapsed on account of the ongoing conflict and unemployment surging to 50 per cent – in the private sector reportedly 70 per cent and in opposition-controlled areas even up to 90 per cent – looting of artefacts is also a source of income for poor Syrians.

While the looting by moderate opposition forces seems limited to unorganised actions, the Islamic State has systematised looting. At first, IS encouraged people in the area they controlled to loot, in return for khums, a traditional Islamic tax on the spoils of war. According to the Syrian Heritage Task Force, set up by the Syrian opposition (in exile), IS imposes a tax on looted antiquities. From the summer 2014 onwards, IS took a more deliberate approach, hiring contractors to do the excavations. IS has also reportedly been hiring its own people, making looting a common form of employment. The British daily The Guardian reported that, based on 160 computer flash drives that had been found in the house of a former IS commander, IS had looted $36 million worth of antiquities from the al-Nabuk area (in the Qalamoun mountains, west of Damascus).

The extent of the trade is not known, because of the insecurity and inaccessibility of the sites. It is worth noting that reports of looting and, particularly, estimates of the booty acquired, have been used for propaganda purposes by all parties involved, so they cannot always be trusted. On the one hand, opposition media accuse the government of failing to protect Syria’s heritage sites and antiquities, and on the other, the Syrian regime, in its discourse of the opposition as “terrorists,” accuses the opposition of destroying Syria’s cultural heritage. For example, the regime’s official media reported that the Odyssey mosaics had been looted from the ancient site of Apamea, which turned out to be untrue.

In order to prevent Syria’s cultural heritage from being smuggled out of the country, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has compiled an Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk; it aims to raise public awareness and help art professionals and law-enforcement officials to identify smuggled items. Earlier, in 2013, the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) began a public campaign to involve the people of Syria in protecting the antiquities on heritage sites from theft.

Archaeological artefacts are protected internationally by the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, signed by Syria. Syria is also a party to the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which obliges state parties to impose penalties or administrative sanctions on anyone who illegally exports (stolen) cultural property. Under Syria’s own Antiquities Law of 1963, smuggling of antiquities is subject to a penalty of 15 to 25 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 to 1 million Syrian pounds (Article 56); theft of movable or immovable antiquities, carrying out illegal excavations and trading illegally in antiquities is punishable by 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 Syrian pounds (Article 57).

On 3 December 2014 Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO, urged the creation of ‘protected cultural zones’ around heritage sites in Syria and Iraq, starting with the area around the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo. Precisely how such zones should be created is not clear.

Deliberately Destroyed

In addition to damage to heritage sites during fighting, ancient monuments all over Syria have been deliberately destroyed, most often by Islamic fundamentalists. IS and such groups as Jabhat al-Nusra have destroyed temples, ancient mosaics and statues because of their portrayal of human beings, which is forbidden by their religious beliefs.

In January 2014, IS blew up a 6th-century Byzantine mosaic near Raqqa. In September 2014, IS destroyed the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir al-Zor, which housed the remains of victims of the Armenian genocide.

A Sufi mausoleum in Raqqa is being torn down by Islamic State, January 2014
A Sufi mausoleum in Raqqa is being torn down by Islamic State, January 2014

Nor has IS has spared Muslim sites: it has destroyed several mosques and other things they consider forms of idolatry. According to the AAAS, almost half of the destroyed sites are associated with Shiite Muslims, while the rest are in places sacred to Sufis, Christians and Yazidis. More than 15 per cent of the sites are statues and buildings predating Islam. In April 2014, IS toppled two massive 9th-century-BCE black stone lions in Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State.

The famous site of Palmyra (Tadmur), while long having been spared of destruction, has been the target of deliberate devastation since IS took the area from government forces in May 2015. In August, three 2,000 year-old tombs were destroyed, and later the Temples of Bel and Baalshamin as well. In October, Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, confirmed that IS militants had destroyed the Roman Arch of Triumph, one of the most famous monuments at Palmyra. Abdulkarim warned that the ancient city of Palmyra would be “totally gone in three to four months” adding that IS not only blows up monuments out of ideology, as it is also targeting buildings with no religious meaning. In March 2016, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air-strikes, managed to recapture the city of Palmyra from the IS.

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