Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1163, (5 - 11 September 2013)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1163, (5 - 11 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Heritage and the Syrian crisis

Syria’s historic buildings, museums and archaeological sites continue to suffer as a result of the crisis in the country, writes David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

News that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the UN agency charged with the protection of the world’s cultural and natural heritage, had declared Syria’s six World Heritage Sites to be under threat in June this year did not come as a surprise to those architects, archaeologists and heritage specialists who have been watching the crisis in the country unfold over the past two-and-a-half years.
Far from being disturbed by the UNESCO committee’s decision to declare the sites, which include the ancient cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the crusader castles and Salaheddin Citadel, and the Graeco-Roman site of Palmyra, to be under ongoing threat, many such people contacted by Al-Ahram Weekly said that they were surprised that UNESCO had taken as long as it had done to place these sites on its official list of world heritage in danger.
The mediaeval markets of Aleppo, outstanding examples of Arab city architecture, were destroyed during the fighting in the city in September last year. In April this year, the minaret of the city’s great mosque, dating back to the Umayyad period, was entirely destroyed in the fighting, following widespread earlier damage to the building. Reports in July suggested that further damage had taken place to the Crac des Chevaliers, the castles built during the mediaeval crusades, and to the Salaheddin Citadel in Aleppo, a structure associated with Saladin, the founder of the Egyptian Ayoubid Dynasty.
In statements issued in April, June and July this year, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova expressed her shock at what she called the “further destruction of cultural heritage in Syria”, reminding the combatants of their obligations to protect the country’s heritage under international law. What was taking place in Syria, she said, was a disaster for the country and for the world as a whole, commenting that “destroying the inheritance of the past, the legacy for future generations, serves no purpose except that of deepening hatred and despair, and it further weakens the foundations for the cohesion of Syrian society.”
At a meeting held at the organisation’s headquarters in Paris last week, Bokova once again appealed for action to be taken to protect Syria’s heritage. “Protecting heritage is inseparable from protecting populations, because heritage enshrines a people’s values and identities,” she said. “Serious damage has already been inflicted on Syria’s heritage. The destruction of sites such as the historic souk [market] in Aleppo has made headlines around the world. I urge all parties to take all necessary precautions to stop the destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage.”
However, while the warnings issued by UNESCO and other international bodies have helped raise awareness of the ongoing destruction of the cultural heritage in Syria, they have thus far not resulted in international action to help protect them. As the Weekly reported in coverage of the issue in September last year, because of the difficulties involved in entering Syria, much of which is now being fought over by government and rebel forces, reliable information on the state of the country’s historic buildings, museums and archaeological sites is hard to come by, despite reports that buildings are being bombed or used as military barracks, sites damaged by military use or threatened by illicit excavation, and museums and collections left vulnerable to theft or looting.
High-profile events, such as the destruction of ancient Aleppo, the looting of Palmyra, and the destruction at the crusader castles, have been reported in the international press. But the precise condition of even these sites is unclear despite the reports of damage or destruction. The condition of the rest of the country’s heritage, especially in remote or conflict areas, is often more or less unknown. While this lack of information may indicate that much of Syria’s heritage has thus far been spared the kind of destruction seen in Aleppo, the example of neighbouring Iraq where museum collections, libraries and archaeological sites were destroyed or looted during the violence that overwhelmed the country following the US-led invasion in 2003, may not auger well for similar sites and institutions in Syria.
Speaking to the Weekly in Paris, Ali Othman, a Syrian archaeologist formerly with the Syrian Direction générale des antiquités et des musées (DGAM) in Damascus, the Syrian government heritage agency, and now working with the expatriate organisation Patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger (PASD), said that while an assessment of the situation put out by DGAM in June this year had been generally reassuring, it may not reflect the truth of what was happening to Syria’s heritage during the conflict, even aside from the high-profile cases of destruction reported on in the international media.
PASD had been continuing its work of making public what could be verified on its Website, he said, while at the same time cooperating with Interpol, the international police organisation, in a bid to control the smuggling of antiquities out of the country. A so-called Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk drawn up by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) should be available soon, he said, this aiming to help art and heritage professionals and law-enforcement agencies abroad identify Syrian objects protected by either national or international legislation.
Similar emergency Red Lists of Iraqi and Egyptian cultural objects at risk were published in 2003 and 2011, respectively. As far as the Syrian heritage is concerned, the ICOM Red List draws particular attention to the possible smuggling out of the country and illicit sale of tablets bearing cuneiform, Aramaic, Syriac, Greek, Latin or Arabic inscriptions, figural sculptures from the prehistoric to Islamic periods, ceramic and other vessels from various periods, architectural elements, including Byzantine period mosaics, stamps and cylinder seals, and Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Arab coins.

HERITAGE IN CONFLICT ZONES: While the circumstances of the Syrian conflict are different from the conflict that did so much damage in Iraq following the US-led invasion, the challenges facing Syria’s archaeological sites, historic buildings and museum collections are in many ways similar to those experienced in that country.
Not only is there the risk of culturAl-heritage sites and buildings being damaged as a result of military action, or as a result of their being used for military purposes or because of their proximity to military zones, but the breakdown in security that tends to take place during times of international or domestic conflict also places such sites at risk of looting, illicit excavation in the case of archaeological sites, and theft and abuses of various kinds, among them an increase in the smuggling of items abroad.
In the Iraqi case, the effects of the US-led invasion and subsequent collapse of the regime led by former president Saddam Hussein on the country’s cultural heritage sites and institutions are well known. The country’s national museum in Baghdad, home to priceless collections of ancient Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian artefacts, was looted under the watch of occupying US soldiers, and archaeological sites up and down the country were pillaged in the atmosphere of lawlessness that followed the collapse of the Saddam regime.
Security at Iraq’s thousands of archaeological and other cultural sites proved impossible to maintain, and illicit excavation and looting reached epidemic proportions. While the situation of Syria’s cultural heritage is thankfully unlike that of the heritage of Iraq, there may be little room for complacency since sites and buildings have already been affected by military action and reports of increased thefts and smuggling are arriving on a daily basis.
There is also little that can be done about the damage that is taking place as long as the conflict in the country continues, and international instruments designed to protect cultural heritage at times of conflict to which the Syrian government is party, such as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, have once again shown their limitations.
The 1954 Hague Convention, agreed on by the international community in the wake of the destruction of cultural property that took place during World War II, makes the safeguarding of cultural heritage the responsibility of the government on whose territory that heritage is found during periods of civil conflict. However, the convention is vague about what penalties, if any, should be levied on those states party to the convention that do not take steps to safeguard their heritage during periods of conflict, and in the Syrian case the evidence suggests that some of the damage at least may have been inflicted by regime forces.
One video clip dated to July this year and available on YouTube as well as on the PASD site appears to show regime forces bombarding the Crac des Chevaliers from the air, for example. Syria is also not signatory to an addendum to the 1954 Convention, the so-called Second Protocol, which seeks to ensure the enhanced protection of certain categories of heritage and aims to make its destruction a criminal offence under international law.
Similarly, while there is evidence of the looting of archaeological sites in Syria and the smuggling of finds to antiquities markets abroad, something which becomes easier at times when security as a whole is under threat or has broken down, the 1970 Convention has in the past proved an imperfect instrument in preventing or discouraging it. According to observers spoken to by the Weekly, antiquities markets in neighbouring countries have been receiving artefacts smuggled out of Syria, as was also reported by the British journalist Robert Fisk in an article in the UK newspaper The Independent last year.
One of the problems with the 1970 Convention has been that while it seeks to regulate the transit of cultural property from one state to another by requiring any state that is signatory to the convention to investigate an item’s provenance and issue an export certificate for it, thereby discouraging illicit transfers, this requirement can be waived in the case of items that do not have a provenance, in other words a previous owner or owners.
Writing in Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War (2006), Neil Brodie, formerly director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at the MacDonald Institute at Cambridge University in the UK, commented that the UK government has routinely issued export licences for unprovenanced Iraqi objects passing through the London antiquities market, and even when an export certificate was required “for artifacts of non-EU origin had issued [one] without any check being made on the legality of export from its country of origin.”
Such cavalier attitudes or legal loopholes are important when one considers the potential scale of the market in illicitly acquired Middle Eastern antiquities and the part played by international antiquities dealers in it. According to the US academic Lawrence Rothfield, writing in his The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraqi Museum (reviewed in the Weekly in May 2009), between 400,000 and 600,000 artefacts were taken illegally from Iraqi archaeological sites between 2003 and 2005 alone, “an astounding figure”, Rothfield wrote, representing “three to four times the number of artifacts gathered since the 1920s by the National Museum of Iraq”.
Since these artefacts were taken from the sites illegally, they have no provenance, and therefore, if Brodie is to be believed, could be routinely re-exported from antiquities markets abroad.
According to some observers spoken to by the Weekly, items kept in Syria’s museums are sometimes not catalogued, and thus have no inventory numbers or other form of identification. It doesn’t take much to see that were these items to be stolen and illegally exported during the present conflict, or were other items to be illegally excavated from Syria’s archaeological sites and smuggled abroad, they would be unlikely to be tracked down or returned to their rightful owners.

SYRIA’S MUSEUMS: While reliable information on the damage suffered by Syrian heritage sites, buildings and museum and other collections is difficult to verify, some things at least seem to be known. In some cases, these update information were supplied to the Weekly by PASD in September last year. In other cases, significant new information has since been made available, often by correspondents working inside Syria.
Syria has 38 state museums, two national in Damascus and Aleppo, 12 regional in Homs, Hama, Deraa, Deir Al-Zour, Palmyra, Idlib, Latakia, Bosra, Suweida, Tartous, Raqqa and Quneitra, seven of popular arts and traditions, 11 dealing with specific subjects, such as calligraphy or mosaics and various site museums. While a report published by the Syrian DGAM on 15 June this year, a copy of which has reached the Weekly, said that all the country’s museums had been emptied of their contents and these placed in safe locations for the duration of the conflict, according to PASD there are reasons to think this may be an overly optimistic assessment.
It was reported last year, that an Aramean statue had been stolen from the Hama museum, that the museum at Maaret Al-Numan had been at least partially looted, that Roman-era mosaics and statuary had been stolen from the site and museum of Apamea, and that the museum in Idlib, which houses thousands of third millennium BCE cuneiform tablets, was in an unknown condition, possibly damaged by the fighting in the area or looted.  
According to the June 2013 DGAM report, while the Museum of Folk Traditions in Aleppo had suffered limited looting, other damage, notably in Raqqa, at the National Museum in Aleppo, and at the museum at Ma’aret Al-Nu’man, had been restricted to the buildings. Media reports of looting at Ma’aret Al-Nu’man could not be confirmed, the DGAM said, adding that the theft of Byzantine era mosaics from the Doura Europos site museum had been of replicas, leaving the original collections intact.  
However, according to PASD there are reasons to believe that more extensive damage and possibly thefts have occurred than are admitted to in the DGAM report. Significant damage had occurred at the national or regional museums in Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Deir Al-Zour, as well as at the site museums of Doura Europos, Mari, Ibla and Raqqa, the group said.
According to Othman, the problem has been compounded by the fact that several of the areas in which the museums are located are currently in the hands of armed groups, among them Raqqa. A further problem has been that records of excavations and materials kept for research purposes have almost certainly been lost from some sites. Inventories are almost certainly not complete, meaning that were non-inventoried items to be stolen and smuggled out of the country for sale on the international antiquities markets it would be almost impossible to demonstrate their provenance.

HERITAGE AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES: Six sites in Syria are registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, which, put together under the auspices of the 1972 Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, aims to help safeguard sites that are of outstanding value to humanity as a whole.
These sites include the old city of Aleppo, the ancient city of Bosra, the old city of Damascus, the ancient villages of northern Syria, the Crac des Chevaliers (Crusader Castles) and Qalaat Salaheddin (the Citadel of Saladin), and the ancient city of Palmyra. As mentioned earlier, all these sites were officially listed as being in danger of damage or destruction in June this year. A further 12 sites have been put forward for registration on the UNESCO Tentative List, a list of sites that are pending final registration as world heritage.
These latter sites include the Hellenistic and Roman site of Apamea 60km north of Hama, the Qasr Al-Hayr Al-Sharqi, one of the so-called “desert castles” built by the Umayyad caliphs in the eighth century CE, and the remains of the Abbasid city of Raqqa-Rafiqa in the north-east of the country.
These sites make up a kind of palimpsest of Middle Eastern history, and they bear witness to Syria’s Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic heritage. According to information gathered by PASD last year, during the present conflict in Syria the Umayyad mosques in Deraa, Bosra and Inkhil had been damaged by bombardment, and the minaret of the Kaab Al-Ahbar Mosque in Homs had been partially destroyed. The early Christian cathedral of the Holy Virgin in Homs had been bombarded, and the monastery of Deir Mar Moussa Al-Habashi damaged. Fighting was continuing in the historic villages near Idlib between rebel groups and regime forces, and the Citadel of Homs, the Citadel of Qalaat Al-Hosn (Crac des Chevaliers) and the Citadel of Al-Mudiq near the ancient site of Apamea had all been bombarded.
This is in addition to the more high-profile cases of the destruction of the mediaeval markets of Aleppo in September last year and of the minaret of the great mosque in the same city in April of this year.
Various heritage sites had been taken over for military purposes, making them targets for military action or opening them up to the construction of defensive trenches or other forms of excavation. These included the ancient sites of Tell Qarqur, Tell Afis and Tell Azaz. The ancient Hellenistic and Roman site of Palmyra, before the conflict a major tourist attraction, had been used for military purposes and statues had been looted. Historic areas of Bosra, Hams, Hama, Aleppo and other cities had been turned into battlefields. Illicit excavations had taken place at sites in the provinces of Deraa, Hama and Homs. Elsewhere, illegal constructions had taken place at heritage sites in Deraa, Quneitra and Deir Al-Zour.
In its updated list of damage known to have occurred to heritage sites in Syria, PASD now lists a further 14 tells, or archaeological sites, along with the citadels of Hama and Chmemis, the mosques of Al-Ismailia, Qastel Harami, Al-Kamaliya and Al-Othmaniya in Aleppo, the mosque of Al-Omari in Deraa, believed to have been damaged particularly in April this year, the churches of Umm Al-Zenar in Homs and Mar Assia Al-Hakim in Aleppo, the Deir Mar Moussa monastery in Damascus, the ancient markets of Homs and Deir Al-Zour and large parts of the old cities of Aleppo, Homs and Al-Midan near Damascus.
While the June DGAM report also lists damage caused by military clashes, it estimates damage caused to historic buildings to be much less than indicated by PASD. However, the DGAM report to some extent concurs with PASD estimates of the damage caused by the illegal excavation of archaeological sites, noting that this has been a particular problem in Hasaka, Raqqa, Deir Al-Zour, Idlib, Hama and Homs, among other locations. Heavy machinery has apparently been used to create 300 different-sized pits across the Doura Europos site, Raqqa is out of bounds to DGAM inspection since it is under the control of armed groups, and Apamea and Palmyra have been badly affected, though precise information is lacking.

SUCH LISTS can only be a selection of the damage that has occurred, and there are significant differences between the estimates presented by the DGAM in Damascus, by PASD, and by some of the unverified information circulating on the Internet. A clearer picture will not be available until the conflict in Syria has been resolved and inspection teams are able to visit the sites and institutions concerned.
In the meantime, the PASD’s Facebook site is playing a vital role in providing documentation of the damage that has occurred. Among the photographs and video footage uploaded on the PASD site, thanks to the miracle of digital video filming and high-speed Internet connection, are videos showing the bombing of the Crac des Chevaliers in July this year, the destruction of the grand mosque in Aleppo, and the bombing of the archaeological area of Palmyra in May along with the installation of heavy weaponry at the site.
Other footage shows the destruction of the ancient markets in Aleppo in April, what seems to have been the comprehensive destruction of the old city of Homs in the same month, and the destroyed state of the Al-Omari Mosque in Deraa in video footage dating from earlier this year.

Updates on the situation of Syria’s heritage can be found in English, Arabic and French at the Patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger (PASD) Facebook site:

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