Thousands have been killed and millions made homeless in Syria's
civil war, but it has also caused irreparable damage to some of
the world's most precious historical sites. The treasures now
being destroyed matter to everyone on the planet, argues historian
In August 2012 fire tore through the heart of the Syrian city of
Aleppo. One Western journalist said parts of it, including much of
the medieval covered market, or souk, were "burned to
smithereens". Old Aleppo is a Unesco World Heritage site,
recognized by the world as being internationally significant, a
vital piece of humanity's shared past. Central Aleppo was a
stunningly preserved medieval settlement, probably the finest
example of its kind in the world, according to a BBC report.
It was as if parts of Stonehenge or the heart of Edinburgh had
been wiped out. The fire was caused by the vicious fighting that
has swept across Syria since a civil war started in 2011. More
than 50,000 people have been killed, thousands more injured,
imprisoned and tortured, and millions made homeless or turned into
refugees. I have just returned from Syria where I was making a
program on how Syria's history has shaped the current conflict.
Many historic sites were too dangerous to get to. The Syrians I
met, though, spoke grimly about the damage to the heritage of
their country, aware that this is what makes Syria unique.
Syria is where it all began. Syria, and its surrounding area, was
where humans first developed large scale farming, started living
in complex cities and invented what is thought to be world's first
alphabet. Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities
on the planet. Geography placed Syria at the heart of human
history. It sits astride the great artery of trade, the Silk
Route, which links East with West. Spices, fabrics, gold, ivory
and other luxuries passed through the cities of Syria before
either going east to Central Asia and China, or heading west, to
the Mediterranean basin and beyond.
Conquerors followed the merchants. The ancient Egyptians,
Persians, Alexander the Great, Romans, Islamic Caliphs, Mongols,
Ottomans, French and British have sought to dominate this
important region. Each conqueror left their mark and Syria has
some of the world's most precious historical sites. There are
villages that sit on the cusp of pre-history and history, that
show us how our species jumped from being hunter gathering to
settled farmers, one of the most important shifts in our history.
When the war ends Syria's treasures will be the foundations on
which a shredded national identity can be rebuilt/
There are Roman cities, the mightiest castles on earth, and the
most beautiful medieval Islamic markets and palaces. Now Syria's
own people have turned on themselves in a vicious civil war.
Civilian suffering has, quite rightly, dominated the headlines.
However Syria's heritage is also under attack. It feels cruel to
talk of bricks and mortar while children freeze in unsanitary
refugee camps, and yet these sites and treasures matter to
everyone on the planet, and they matter particularly to Syrians,
who will rely on them as the mainstay of their economy whenever
peace is restored. The heritage casualty list is deeply alarming.
Syria has several Unesco World Heritage sites. Alongside Aleppo,
are the old cities of Damascus and Bosra, the Crusader castles
Crac des Chevaliers and Qal'at Salah El-Din, the Roman site of
Palmyra and the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria.
Emma Cunliffe, Global Heritage Preservation Fellow and PhD
researcher at Durham University, author of Damage to the Soul:
Syria's Cultural Heritage in Conflict says all have been affected.
Parts of Aleppo, she thinks, are irreparably damaged. Alone, the
loss of so much of Aleppo would be a tragedy, yet it is only part
of a much larger picture. Mrs Cunliffe told me that she has 200
pages of notes on damage in Syria. There have been reports of
looting in Bosra. Crac des Chevaliers, one of the world's finest
castles, has been shelled by artillery as the Syrian army attempts
to dislodge rebel snipers. Refugees have re-inhabited buildings
amongst the Ancient Villages, digging latrines, and scavenging for
lucrative archaeological finds
The Syrian government reports that there have been "illegal
excavation acts in unexplored tombs in Palmyra". There are
pictures that appear to show government tanks using the
magnificent Roman colonnaded road. For every World Heritage Site
damaged there are countless less celebrated sites which are just
as special. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Special Representative for
Syria reported in September 2012 that important "mosques, churches
and old markets" in the city of Homs now lie "in ruin". These
include the Cathedral of Um al-Zennar which dates to the dawn of
Christianity, 59 AD.
After nearly 2,000 years of use, it's now silent and battered.
Nearby there is a mosque almost as old as Islam. The Khalid ibn
al-Walid Mosque, named after one of the greatest generals in
history, known as The Drawn Sword of God, whose tomb it houses,
has been shelled and badly damaged. Mrs Cunliffe, and other
experts I've talked to, have all said that the Syrian government's
Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums is doing a heroic
job, but the scale of the catastrophe is swamping its meagre
resources. Artefacts have been removed from galleries, hidden in
cellars and taken to secure locations but an organisation that
lacked funds even in peacetime is struggling now.
The Syrian government has lost control of several stretches of its
border. Treasures are being smuggled out and sold. One report
claims $2 billion worth of artefacts have already left the
country. Heritage binds communities together. Like the pictures,
heirlooms and stories in a family home, it forms a bedrock of
shared memory. When the war ends Syria's treasures will be the
foundations on which a shredded national identity can be rebuilt.
Just as importantly, the tourists who were once drawn to Syria by
the extraordinary heritage will return.
Tourism was vital to the Syrian economy and the only sector in
which, before the war, massive growth was a realistic prospect. If
Syria's soul is to be healed, it needs its treasures, and if
Syria's wrecked economy and impoverished people are to recover,
its magical sites, and the tourists they attract, will play a