How Syria's ancient treasures are being smashed

  • Published
Krak des Chevaliers, March 2014Image source, APSA

Syria, graced with thousands of historic sites, is seeing its cultural heritage vandalised, looted and destroyed by war - but volunteers are doing what they can to document the damage and save the country's cultural identity from obliteration.

They have taken many of the photographs below.

In March the Syrian air force bombed the world's best preserved Crusader Castle, the 12th Century Krak des Chevaliers (above) in Homs province.

Its strategic location - guarding the only corridor from Syria's interior to the coast as well as the entrance to Lebanon's Bekaa valley - guaranteed that it would be a fiercely contested stronghold in this war, just as it was for the Knights Hospitaller in Crusader times.

Image source, Diana Darke

The elegant Crusader cloister inside the castle bore an inscription carved in Latin: "Grace, wisdom and beauty you may enjoy but beware pride which alone can tarnish all the rest."

Image source, AFP

The loggia became a ruined shell after MiG fighter jets were used to dislodge rebel fighters who had based themselves there. The Latin inscription has been blown to smithereens.

In November a mortar shell, fired from rebel-held areas in the north-eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus, struck the priceless mosaics on the facade of the 8th Century Great Mosque - the spiritual heart of the city.

Image source, APSA

The mosaics depict visions of Paradise with fantastical buildings surrounded by trees and gardens - the Syrian authorities have since repaired the damage.

Another shell fired the same month penetrated the western face of the perimeter wall of the Damascus Citadel, leaving a hole nearly one metre wide near the recently restored Throne Room.

Image source, APSA

The stronghold served as headquarters, chief arsenal and supply centre for the great Muslim warlord Saladin, in his battles against the crusaders amongst others. Most of the citadel's 12 defensive towers and vast internal courtyard date from the 12th Century, though it continued to be used as a prison by the Syrian state under Hafez al-Assad as recently as 1985.

Among the 2,000-year-old remains of the Roman oasis city of Palmyra, to the north-east, the army has dug a road and earth dykes, and installed multiple rocket launchers inside the camp of the emperor Diocletian.

Image source, APSA
Image caption,
Palmyra in the foreground with the medieval citadel of Ibn Ma'an in the distance
Image source, Diana Darke

Shells have hit the columns of the ancient city's Temple of Bel (seen above before the bombardment), causing two of them to collapse.

Image source, APSA

The temple is one of the most important religious buildings of its time in the Middle East - it represents a synthesis of Roman with Greco-Persian-Babylonian architecture. Many finely carved sculptures and blocks formerly stood inside the sanctuary, including a crowd scene with fully veiled women centuries before Islam. Whether they are still there, and still intact, is unknown.

The distinctive Palmyra rose and acanthus leaf motifs directly influenced the 18th Century classical revival in England, and can still be seen on the ceilings of many British country homes.

Image source, Diana Darke

Syrian armed forces are also installed in the medieval Arab citadel of Ibn Ma'an overlooking the site (see photograph with tank above). Shells fired from this natural vantage point damage not only the ancient site, but also ancient olive, date and pomegranate plantations, destroying the livelihood of many local people.

Syria's riches

  • Syria's oldest sites date back 5,000 years, to the Early Bronze Age
  • It has more than 10,000 Mesopotamian tells or archaeological mounds
  • Syria has six Unesco World Heritage Sites: Ancient city of Damascus, Site of Palmyra, Ancient city of Bosra, Ancient city of Aleppo, Krak des Chevaliers / Saladin's Castle, Ancient Byzantine villages of Northern Syria
  • Twelve more Syrian sites are on Unesco's list for future consideration

Further north, Aleppo's Great Mosque, founded in the early 8th Century, has come under heavy fire. Its 50m-tall Seljuk minaret, a masterpiece of elegance dating from 1095, was considered one of the most important monuments of medieval Syria. It was built in the grounds of the 6th Century Cathedral of St Helena - inside is the tomb of the Prophet Zachariah, father of John the Baptist (who is buried in Damascus).

Image source, AFP

The minaret, whose height made it a useful rebel lookout and sniper position, collapsed as a result of shelling in March 2013. Its destruction is the equivalent to the loss of Big Ben from the London skyline.

Image source, AFP

Archaeology students from Aleppo University have collected the fallen basalt and limestone blocks and put them in a safe place awaiting reconstruction when the war ends.

Aleppo's souks, dating back in parts to the 13th Century, were considered the finest of any in the Middle East, with more than 12km of winding alleys. Not just a major tourist attraction, they represented the beating heart of the commercial city, founded in the 2nd Millennium BC.

Image source, Alamy

Free Syrian Army rebels established a headquarters in a bath-house near the old souk, making it a target for bombardment. In the shelling, an electricity sub-station caught fire and flames quickly spread, reducing the souk's wooden doors and wares to ash within hours.

Image source, AFP

The livelihoods of over 35,000 people went up in smoke.

Syria's third largest city after Aleppo and Damascus is Homs, home to most of the country's factories and oil refineries. Its strategic central location at the intersection of the country's road and rail networks ensured it would always be a fiercely contested city.

The Old City of Homs suffered more aerial bombardment than any other city in Syria. Many ancient buildings, including several active churches and monasteries, were flattened. Umm Al-Zinnar Church boasted a relic from the belt of the Virgin Mary.

Image source, APSA
Image source, AFP

As ancient Emessa, this was an important early Christian bishopric, and the Christian and Muslim populations were well integrated across the centuries, fighting side by side in the current war till the siege finally ended in May this year.

Far to the south, the 2nd Century Roman amphitheatre of Bosra, once the capital of the Roman Province of Arabia, is concealed within a 13th Century fort not far from the Jordanian border. It has been occupied during the current fighting by army snipers and shabiha militia, its windows piled with sandbags, firing at rebel pockets in the Old Town of Bosra.

Image source, Diana Darke

The famous tells or archaeological mounds of Mesopotamia - rich repositories of man's earliest history once carefully dug by the likes of Agatha Christie's archaeologist husband Max Mallowan - are now systematically being plundered with heavy machinery to fill the coffers of Islamist militant group Isis. While some ancient artefacts are traded for weapons or cash, others that represent humans or animal gods are seen by Isis as heretical to Islam and destroyed.

This photo of an 8th Century BC Assyrian statue excavated from Tell Ajajah, near Hasakah on the Khabour River, was taken in May.

Image source, APSA

Isis has also bulldozed statues of lions along with Sufi and Shia shrines in the Raqqa province, the militant group's headquarters.

Small scale illicit digging in these places and elsewhere has always been a problem, but now no-one is guarding them at all.

While Iraq benefited from a UN resolution banning trade in its antiquities after the US invasion of 2003, Syria has been given no such protection. Unesco can only function inside Syria with the permission of the Syrian regime - a permission which has not been forthcoming.

Groups of young Syrian academics, archaeologists and volunteers such as the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) are taking matters into their own hands. They are documenting the damage and protecting vulnerable sites wherever possible building physical barriers to shield them from shell damage and vandalism.

This protective wall is being built in front of the 13th Century Halawiye Madrasa prayer niche in Aleppo.

Image source, SAPAH

Diana Darke is the author of My House in Damascus, An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution. She wrote this piece with Syrian sculptor and archaeologist Zahed Taj-Eddin. Thanks to the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology for photographs.

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