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Syria’s Cultural Heritage Is a Major Victim of the Country’s Civil War

In addition to its people and cities, Syria is also losing its outstanding historic buildings and artifacts at a frightening pace.

by Alice Speri
Mar 15 2014, 12:10pm

Photo via Getty

As if that weren’t enough, there is more to mourn in Syria than the estimated 146,000 people — or 300,000, by some counts — who have been killed since fighting started there three years ago.

In addition to its people and cities, Syria is also losing its outstanding cultural heritage at a frightening pace.

Syria’s historical monuments have come under fire — some used as outposts and battlegrounds for the civil war, others looted in the chaos, others just victims of “collateral damage.”

Earlier this month, the Syrian fortress of Crac des Chevaliers, an 11th century crusader castle still used by opposition fighters as a fortress, was hit during bombardments of the surrounding areas. The castle, a UNESCO world heritage site, had been previously targeted and bombed by government forces.

The video below shows smoke rising from the castle after recent shelling.

The Crac des Chevaliers, an 11th century crusader castle and rebel stronghold, shelled by government forces.

“On top of immense human suffering, a cultural tragedy is underway in Syria," Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General, said in a statement earlier this week. “Protecting culture today is essential for building peace tomorrow.”

Three UNESCO world heritage sites — the Crac des Chevaliers, Palmyra, and the old city of Aleppo, including its citadel — are being used as military stations, making them likely targets for destruction. The agency has made repeated appeals to protect Syria’s heritage. The video below, released by UNESCO last summer, shows several of the country’s destroyed sites.

Unesco Director-General Irina Bokova and UN special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi appeal for the protection of Syria’s cultural heritage.

“Damage to cultural heritage is a blow against the identity and history of the Syrian people,” Bokova also said. “It is a blow against the universal heritage of humanity.”

The videos below show Aleppo’s historic covered souk in flames after the city was shelled last September, and before its destruction. Up to 1,000 shops were reportedly lost to the fire.

Aleppo’s souk on fire in September 2013.

Aleppo’s souk before its destruction.

In addition to direct shelling and gunfire, deliberate destruction has included the defacing of objects, motivated by the iconoclastic ideology of some of the most radical groups fighting the war, and large-scale looting of the country’s artifacts. This was already a problem in peacetime Syria, and has been intensified due to both poverty and a lack of security.

The destruction has also extended far beyond the country’s most recognizable landmarks.

The historic town of Maaloula, for instance, a site north of Damascus, is known as one of the last places in the world where Western Aramaic is still spoken. More recently, it made news as the place where a group of Christian nuns were taken hostage, and recently released in a prisoner exchange, by rebels. Last fall, the site’s churches and monasteries were shelled, and their crosses and regalia looted and sold.

The historic town of Maaloula was attacked in September 2013.

“The saddest one to me is Maaloula,” Emma Cunliffe, an archeologist at the UK's Durham University and author of the Global Heritage Fund’s report on Syria called “Damage to the Soul,” told VICE News. “This was a place that epitomized the religious tolerance Syria was famous for, where Muslims and Christians lived side by side as they had done for millennia.”

“Now that’s been destroyed, and I don’t know if it can ever be repaired,” Cunliffe said, adding that “hundreds” of lesser known sites have also been damaged.

Some groups — from both the government and rebel sides — have attempted to contain the damage. Several NGOs, founded primarily by Syrian expatriates, have worked to spread awareness. They have engaged both government and opposition in discussions on how to best protect Syria’s monuments from the fighting.

Rebels in the central city of Ar-Raqqah took steps to safeguard the local museum, before more radical fighters took over the area. And the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums — a government branch — has worked hard to protect the areas the government has control over, outside observers noted.

UNESCO will soon start training border guards in Syria and neighboring countries to look for looted artifacts. Though Cunliffe told VICE News that “the international community could do a lot more to tackle the demand side of the trade, which, let’s face it, is what fuels the problem.”

At times, protecting Syria’s heritage has come at a great human cost. In Aleppo, for instance, a man working with the Syrian Association for Preserving Heritage and Ancient Landmarks was hit by sniper fire while raising curtains to protect the Great Umayyad Mosque’s minaret and shrine from the very same threat.

But some find it difficult to talk about the country’s cultural heritage when so many people continue to die there every day, and discuss preserving its history when its future looks so uncertain.

“For me nothing makes sense, even art, because people are still dying,” Tammam Azzam, a Syrian artist from the southern city of As Suwayda, told VICE News. “I know it’s very important to talk about art, or heritage, or about the looting in Syria, but the most important thing is to talk about humanity.”

“It would be funny if people took care of the heritage more than the people,” he added.

Azzam started creating digital art using images of war-torn Syria as the background, after fleeing the country’s violence and postponing his dream to represent the revolution through street art.

A digital art creation by Tammam Azzam

“When refugees talk about their return to Syria they won’t have many places to go back to, just their memories,” Azzam added, speaking of the more than 2.5 million who have fled the country since the beginning of the fighting. “All of us just have destroyed memories.”

Those working to protect Syria’s cultural heritage from the war, do so with the Syrian people in mind, and many look ahead to a future that many Syrians are now struggling to imagine: a time of social, physical, and cultural reconstruction.

“It’s never heritage or people. Usually, approaches to protect one help the other,” said Cunliffe, explaining for example that looting is tied to hunger, and that removing armed groups from a given site benefits both its buildings and its people.

“Whilst we can’t access the area to do those things right now, plans which do consider peacekeeping should incorporate them,” she added.

“People need more than just food and shelter to live on. They need the fabric of their society to still be there when they can rebuild, they need a shared foundation to live on.”

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi

Read more on the anniversary of the Syrian civil war:

Waiting for Victory: A Personal View of the Syrian Civil War

Human Strength Shines Out of Syria's 'Never-Ending Sea of Hopelessness'