Hidden Victim of Syria’s Conflict: Historical Heritage
Entering its fourth year and with no end in sight, the Syrian conflict is smashing the rich historical heritage of a country often described as an “archaeologist’s paradise.”
Scientists and citizens are striving to protect what they can, to block the sale of stolen artifacts and to thoroughly document existing historical sites to help future restoration.
Unesco has published a “red list” of artifacts that museums and collectors should watch for that might have been taken from Syria, including sculptures, inscription tablets, coins and tesserae, the tiles used in making mosaics.
“Protecting heritage is inseparable from protecting populations, because heritage enshrines people’s identities,” said Irina Bokova, the director-general of Unesco, when the red list was released. “Heritage gives people strength and confidence to look to the future—it is a force for social cohesion and recovery.”
Others are trying to map the damage done by the conflict. By some estimates, more than 90 percent of the most valuable archaeological sites are in high-conflict areas.
“Big numbers of historic sites have been destroyed or damaged,” said Sepideh Zarrin Ghalam, an architect from Oriental Heritage Without Borders, a cultural and scientific association based in Berlin. “All the six world heritage sites of Syria have been damaged.” The six World Heritage sites include the ancient villages of Northern Syria, Bosra, Crac des Chevaliers, Palmyra, Damascus and Aleppo.
According to Ghalam, historic sites are being damaged
every day through direct shelling, gunfire, army occupation or the looting and destruction of artifacts by Islamic fundamentalists, who say that sculptures violate their religious beliefs.
Aleppo, which is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, has been heavily bombed. The medieval iron doors of its Citadel were destroyed, the thousand-year-old Minaret of Umayyad mosque in Aleppo toppled and the world’s largest covered historic souq, or ancient market, Al-Madina of Aleppo was burned to the ground. Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque in Homs, which is one of the oldest mosques in the world and is considered an excellent example of Ottoman architecture, has been destroyed. The medieval castle of Crac de Chevalier, the ancient Roman city of Apamea and the ancient city of Palmyra have all suffered severe damage and destruction. The suspension bridge of Der Ezzor, which was one the important landmarks of the city, has been demolished.
Recently, mortar fire struck the western front of Damascus’ historic Umayyad mosque, one of the most renowned sites in the Islamic world, which was a Roman temple and then a church before becoming a mosque in the 7th Century, and where there is a shrine to John the Baptist.
“These are only examples of some of the well-known monuments or listed World Heritage sites and to this should be added all the lesser-known number of other significant and historic cultural heritage artifacts,” Ghalam said.
Syria has 38 state museums, two national ones in Damascus and Aleppo, 12 regional, seven of popular arts and traditions and 11 dealing with specific subjects, such as calligraphy or mosaics, and other ones connected to specific sites.
According to a report published by the directorate-general last year, all the country’s museums had been emptied of their contents that had been placed in safe locations. But Syrian authorities have also reported dozens of thefts. Activists have said that the museums of Homs and Hama were looted months ago.
One of the most significant pieces missing is a gilt bronze statue from around 2,000 years ago that was stolen from the city of Hama. Also, a marble piece has been looted from the garden of Apamea museum. Both have been on Interpol’s most wanted list since 2011 and have not yet been recovered.
“This is a real disaster,” said Jan Abaza, a former Syrian antiques restorer at the directorate-general’s office, who now lives in Egypt. “There was no clear national policy for describing and properly conserving the antiquities.”
According to her, there are thousands of unguarded artifacts in archaeological sites. At the beginning of the uprising, Abaza and some of her archaeologist’s colleagues prepared a study to protect archaeological sites and museums. “We wanted to avoid the Iraq tragedy and we appealed to colleagues from Libya in order to know how to make a human shield if necessary.” But the program fell on deaf ears and the growing violence has made a human shield pointless now.
Documenting the damage is challenging, particularly with the escalation of violence, but archaeologists and citizens are still trying to attempt it.
Mamoun Fansa, a Syrian professor who was for many years the director of the Landesmuseums Natur und Mensch in Oldenburg, Germany, has published a new book titled Aleppo, When A War Destroys Human Civilization documenting the traces of the ancient city of Aleppo. “I was totally shocked when I saw the devastation of the ancient city of Aleppo on TV,” Fansa said to an Emirati newspaper. The book includes several articles by Syrian and foreign experts, who have worked previously in the restoration of the ancient city of Aleppo, in addition to hundreds of photos of archaeological sites in the city before the damage.
Oriental Heritage without Borders has already started collecting documentary photos and films of Syrian cultural heritage in danger and the effects the conflict has had on the urban landscape and the daily life of the country’s people. The collected material will be presented in an exhibition in Berlin later this year called “Here is Syria, the Forgotten Heritage”.
“This exhibition is planned to raise awareness to the forgotten heritage of Syria,” says Ghalam. She feels the media’s focus has been exclusively on war news. “It has consequently changed the real image of the country from a place of life and deep history into the ‘normal’ third world nation, which is ‘as always’ facing tragic events.”
The Berlin-based organization is cooperating with the local independent organizations of Young Lens Collective from inside Syria and the Association for Protection of Syrian Archaeology from outside Syria in addition to different Syrian artists and heritage experts.
Syrian cultural heritage, “forgotten victim of war,” was also the subject of an international campaign that began last week in Rome to alert the public about the damage. The campaign is offering a prize for the person or organization who has done the most to protect Syria’s heritage and is also planning an exhibition of Syrian art in Rome entitled “Syria: Splendors and Dramas”.
Many multi-lingual Facebook pages have been created by Syrian and Western academics. Eyes On Heritage is a Syrian Facebook page that focuses on documenting and preserving existing heritage. Syrian Archaeological Heritage Under Threat is run by a group of European and Syrian archaeologists who have tracked damage to Syria’s heritage since clashes began. Their purpose is to help future restoration missions.
“Destroyed sites can be reconstructed if we have detailed and accurate information on the monuments.” said Usama Nanah, a Syrian architect and expert in archeological sites. “Therefore, and in addition to documentation, monuments stones must be protected from theft and loss.” According to Nanah, around 60 percent of Aleppo’s archaeological sites have been damaged.
Even Syria’s Directorate-General of the Antiquities and Museums, the authority in charge of the maintaining, safeguarding and preserving the country’s heritage, has recently completed a project of the first public comprehensive record of all damaged archaeological sites and historical buildings.
According to the directorate’s statement, the project is identifying damaged sites on a map and categorizing them by governorates.
Home to some of the oldest continuously populated cities and towns in the world, Syrian heritage is in dire straits. “What is happening inside Syria is not just the loss of Syrian heritage but a huge loss of human, cultural and natural heritage of humankind as a whole,” Ghalam, from Oriental Heritage Without Borders said. “International communities and every single one of us should feel more responsible and help to stop this wreckage as soon as possible.”