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A Heritage Destroyed

The devastation of historical sites in Syria is met with inaction.

By News

Illustration by Patrick Jenkins.

Illustration by Patrick Jenkins.

Mark Twain wrote about the city of Damascus, Syria, in his 1869 book “Innocents Abroad.”  “Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies,” Twain predicted. “Though another claims the name, old Damascus is by right, the eternal City.”

Syria is where it is believed the first alphabet was invented and the rise of the world’s earliest civilizations occured.  Christianity and Islam both flourished there, leaving behind some of the earliest and most important religious sites in the region.  It’s one of the only countries where Aramaic, the Semitic language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken to this very day.

Today, headlines worldwide carry messages pertaining to the death and destruction in Syria, especially in cities like Damascus and Aleppo. After four decades of totalitarian regimes, the country rose up against oppression and tyranny. The Syrian civil war is now in its third year. Brutal government crackdowns and unprecedented violence have made Syria one of the most dangerous spots in the world. Violence in the country continues to escalate, bringing the death toll to 70,000, and facts on the ground tell us there is a lot more to mourn than a body count.

In May 2012, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, issued a public appeal for the protection of Syria’s cultural heritage, expressing “grave concern about possible damage to precious sites.” Only 10 months later, however, Aleppo’s ancient marketplace known as the “old souk” — a UNESCO world heritage site that survived the rules of the Greeks, Romans and Ottomans — did not survive attacks by the modern weaponry of the Syrian regime.  After the stone walls had been pockmarked with bullet holes, and snipers surrounded the old quarter from every corner, a fire following clashes between the regime’s army and the armed opposition lit the souk up in flames, burning a large portion of its shops and historical assets.

Bokova further expressed her concern following the fire, calling Aleppo “a crossroads of cultures since the second millennium B.C.” and warning of possible destruction threatening other important sites. Joanne Farchak, a Lebanese archaeologist who also investigated the destruction of Iraq’s historical treasures after 2003, was quoted by The Independent’s Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk saying the situation of Syria’s heritage today is “catastrophic.” While other archaeologists and groups such as the World Monuments Fund have been monitoring the losses, government forces, thugs, looters, and terrorists have been playing a more significant part in lengthening the heritage casualty list.  These parties, however, have yet to be identified as it becomes increasingly difficult for international agencies to enter the country.  In the meantime, government officials claim the opposition army forces are responsible, while opposition members blame government forces and regime thugs.

Recent reports have shown that the holiest Jewish site in Syria — the 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue — has been looted, burnt and destroyed.  The holy site built atop a cave is believed to be where the prophet Elijah hid from persecution; it is located in a Damascus suburb that has been under indiscriminate government shelling for the past two months.  Mohammed al Shami, an opposition activist who lives in the area, said in a Skype interview with NBC News that the shelling has not spared any building. “Luckily, many artifacts from the synagogue were removed by a local council in Jobar and are now being stored for safety,” al Shami added.

Much as in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has been reported that nearly  $2 billion worth of artifacts have already left Syria. The list of damaged heritage sites and missing antiquities is approximately four pages long.  A writer for a Syrian opposition newspaper mentioned that a rare gold statue of an Aramaic God was stolen from the city of Hama, and various YouTube videos show ancient ruins torn down and destroyed in several parts of the country.

The Syrian regime has been wiping out entire neighborhoods, destroying towns and displacing millions of civilians through violent warfare.  And while heavy Russian army tanks still surround citadels, snipers hide behind ancient limestone city walls, and shells continue to rain on the alluring courtyards of Umayyad and Ottoman mosques, the rallying cries of unknown heritage organizations remain unheard.  Whether that is due to a lack of funding or publicity, sites that have provided generations with knowledge and richness are in a perilous state. As renowned British historian Dan Snow said recently on BBC World, “The treasures now being destroyed matter to everyone on the planet.”  But the underwhelming inaction in response has been proving otherwise.


This list below shows only a few of the world’s archeological sites in Syria that have been seriously damaged by the ongoing fighting,  bombing and shelling:


1. Great Mosque of Aleppo: The UNESCO World Heritage site is the largest mosque in the city of Aleppo and one of the oldest.  It is said to be a former Roman temple and then a Byzantine church.


2. Krak des Chevaliers: A crusader castle, built by the knights of St. John in the mid-12th century on the site that had previously been inhabited by a settlement of Kurds. It lies on a hilltop between Homs and the coastal city of Tartus.


3. Al Omari Mosque: One of the earliest mosques in Islam, located in the city of Daraa in the south of Syria. The symbolic minaret built by the Caliph Omar was shelled and completely destroyed in April by the regime army forces.


4. The old palace of Junblat: One of the largest palaces in the northern city of Aleppo; it dates back to around 1604, originally built for a prominent Kurdish leader in Aleppo during the Ottoman rule in Syria.


5. Temple of Bel: Located in the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria consecrated to the ancient Semitic god, Bel.  Palmyra was a stronghold of Queen Zenobia in the third century.

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