Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 August - 5 September 2012
Issue No. 1112
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Damascus distroys its own heritage

With some historical sites being turned into military barracks and others being damaged and robbed, the alarm is being raised about the need to protect Syria's cultural sites

Civilisation in Syria is thousands of years old, and like that of other countries in the Middle East its ancient heritage bears witness to human history and to some of the world's first urban civilisations. However, as the fighting escalates in Syria and towns and cities are bombarded using artillery and tanks, the remains of the country's ancient civilisations are in the line of fire and are at risk of being looted or destroyed.

Figures from the Syrian opposition are now raising the alarm about the need to save Syria's heritage, while antiquities experts are warning of the danger of destruction and theft that is looming over the country's historic treasures, including Aramaic, Greek, Roman and Islamic sites.

The opposition figures have called on the international bodies concerned to help protect Syria's heritage from being targeted by forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, including Crusader castles, ancient mosques and churches, Greek and Roman monuments and dozens of museum filled with antiquities.

A recent report compiled by Syrian and foreign experts has documented the damage that such sites have suffered from so far, and this could serve as the basis for further reports to be compiled by international bodies. The report says that digging has occurred at historic sites to create shelters for tanks, while tanks and armoured personnel carriers have been stationed in the middle of historic sites.

Ancient citadels have been converted into military zones and sniper barricades, damaging much of their historic architecture.

The opposition Syrian National Movement for Change claims that "Al-Assad's regime, which has been destroying human life, is now also destroying human heritage by bombing mosques, churches and citadels, and even historic homes. These things are part of the country's priceless heritage going back more than 6,000 years."

The Syrian Expatriate Organisation has also highlighted the destruction of historic sites as a result of battles that began more than 18 months ago, warning that the Syrian army is using historic sites for cover and converting them into military bases.

It has called on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to condemn the destruction of historic sites in Syria and to hold the regime responsible for failing to protect them.

One month ago, Syrian intellectuals, writers and artists issued a statement urging the international community and neighbouring countries to help protect Syria's historic sites and prevent antiquities smuggling outside the country.

"As part of the policy of destroying and looting Syria's antiquities and heritage, which the regime has done since it came to power, Syria's historical sites and monuments are now being subjected to destruction and systematic bombing that has escalated since the start of the Syrian revolution," the statement read.

"Syria's heritage and antiquities in museums are threatened by systematic looting because of the lax security that has resulted in the robbery of antiquities, as well as illegal excavation at historic sites and the smuggling out of Syria's historic treasures."

The group called on the international community "to provide protection for the sites, buildings and museums that form the world's and Syria's heritage and embodies the country's national identity."

It urged organisations such as UNESCO, the Arab Antiquities Union, Blue Shield, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, Arab and international museums, universities and antiquities bodies to "strongly oppose the vicious attacks on Syria's heritage and end flagrant violations such as bombing historic sites and buildings, digging using heavy machinery, and converting citadels into military barracks."

In April, the Mudiq Citadel near the city of Hamah in central Syria, one of the oldest such buildings in the Levant, was extensively damaged. Video footage has been shown of the Citadel, which dates back to the fourth century BCE, being shelled by regime forces and sustaining serious damage.

The historic city of Palmyra, a top tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980, has also been bombarded by regime forces and tanks have been stationed near the famous Royal Tombs in Palmyra.

Syrian activists assert that illicit digging and systematic looting has been underway at the historic city of Afamia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. Splendid Roman mosaics have been stolen, the looters using heavy machinery to carry out their crimes. Archaeologists say that the walls of the Assyrian Temple on Sheikh Hamad Hill at Deir Al-Zur, which dates back to the Bronze Age, have also been extensively damaged.

There are six sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List in Syria, namely Old Damascus, Old Aleppo, the Mudiq Citadel, the Crac Des Chevaliers (Crusader Castles), the cities of Bosra and Palmyra, and the historic villages of North Syria, including Afamia.

The Museum of Homs has been looted, according to antiquities traders who say that markets in Jordan and Turkey have been swamped by illegally smuggled Syrian artefacts. Looting has also taken place in the ancient Aramaic city of Ebla in the governorate of Idlib, where 5,000 cuneiform tablets were located.

Regime forces have bombed the famous Ayoubid Aleppo Citadel, considered a masterpiece of its kind. Shelling has affected Roman and Islamic antiquities in Bosra, while the gates of the Monk Bahira Monastery, considered holy by both Muslims and Christians, have been destroyed.

Ancient mosques and churches in Homs, Deraa, Aleppo and rural Damascus have been extensively damaged by shelling and air strikes, along with large sectors of ancient districts in Homs, Hamah and Aleppo, where they have been directly bombed by regime forces.

Armed revolutionaries sought refuge behind the walls of the ancient citadels to escape the military, but the latter have not hesitated in attacking historic buildings to destroy them. Some activists have used ancient mosques as field hospitals, with the result that the army has bombed them.

Revolutionaries sought refuge at the Crac Des Chevaliers, the Crusader Castles, to escape regime forces, a site which the British Arabist T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) described as the most splendid citadel in the world and the one that Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (Saladin) was unable to recapture from the Crusaders in the Middle Ages.

The army shelled the site with artillery and seriously damaged the Crusader-era church inside.

The Al-Amri Mosque in Deraa, the town that has been described as the cradle of the Syrian revolution, was destroyed by regime forces after activists converted it into a field hospital. The Mosque dates back to the early Islamic era and the time of the caliph Omar bin Al-Khattab. It was considered a masterpiece of early Islamic architecture and it had retained its original architectural detail and structure.

In June 2011, the Syrian government warned that armed groups in Syria could be intending to steal antiquities and to rob museums and manuscripts. However, the warning was denounced by the opposition, which described it as simply setting out what the government itself intended to do.

Subsequent video footage has shown Syrian army soldiers laughing as they carried away ancient statues and artefacts from Palmyra, and activists have published photographs of a gold Aramaic statue dating back to the first century BCE that they said was stolen in August 2011 from Hamah Museum.

Some activists took control of the Maaret Al-Noeman Museum after it was used as a military barracks, declaring it to be under their protection, and others have sought to protect ancient districts and sites in Aleppo. However, these initiatives remain isolated and inadequate.

As a result of the unstable security conditions in the country, there is growing concern about the security of Syrian museums, which contain quantities of priceless artefacts. These could be targeted by accident or on purpose or looted by thieves taking advantage of the absence of security.

Syrian museum collections are sometimes poorly inventoried, which means that it would be impossible to hunt down objects if they were looted.

Although the loss of human life that has taken place since the beginning of the uprising is more important than the material losses, the damage that is taking place to Syria's heritage is a loss for all humanity, since it represents 6,000 years of history and civilisation.

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