Erasing a people’s history: on Syria’s vanishing heritage

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A Syrian policeman patrols the ancient city of Palmyra, which lay at the crossroads of several civilizations. Looting has been a problem at many historical sites. AFP/Joseph Eid

By: Maurice Qudeih

Published Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The U.S. Bureau of International Information Programs published a two-page brief in September 2014 titled: A Heritage in Peril: Iraq and Syria. At first glance, this might sound comical. First of all, it sounds kind of luxurious to be concerned about the historical wealth of countries whose peoples are paying a hefty, bloody price because of the conflicts there. Secondly, the country issuing the brief is not in a position to lecture on this matter, given the archaeological disaster and systematic looting of historical artifacts that took place in Iraq during the US-led invasion and occupation in 2003. However, the issue is serious and tragic, as it threatens to efface great pages of the history of the peoples of the region, and send their major monuments into oblivion.

“…And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him." (Daniel 9:27)

In a previous article published earlier this year, a general overview of the state of Syrian heritage was presented, with explanation and details provided for the most important cases. However, time elapsed since the beginning of the crisis and the fact that 93 percent of Syria’s archaeological and historical wealth falls within the areas of armed conflict and/or of displacement, in addition to the developments of the war that placed parts of the country under the control of the insurgent groups, warrants an update.

The lists issued by the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums in Syria remain the main reference for an inventory of the sites that have been damaged. The Directorate had prepared the first list covering the period between the beginning of the conflict and the end of March 2014, followed by two other lists, one covering the period between April and June 2014, and another the period between July and September 2014.

By examining these lists, one can see the geographical distribution of the damage, which allows us to cluster them according to their location, including: Aleppo; the Aleppo Countryside (the Dead Cities); Bosra in Daraa; Mari; Dura-Europos; and the archaeological hills in Deir Ezzor. This is in addition to two important sites currently under the control of the government, namely, Maaloula and Krak des Chevaliers. Finally, there is the issue of the occupation or conversion of churches or their destruction; the leveling of shrines; and the damages in and disrepair of the synagogue in Jobar.

Aleppo and its countryside

Aleppo is disappearing. This phrase perhaps best expresses the terrible tragedy that this city has experienced and the extent of the damage its historical buildings have sustained. In the Old City and the area around the castle, it seems the damage is increasing with renewed fighting, but also because of the recent combat tactic of digging under buildings to plant and detonate explosives from below.

The damage has not spared the UNESCO World Heritage sites in the city, including mosques like Khusruwiyah, al-Sultan, Banqosa, and al-Midani, a number of khans and the Adeli School, in addition to the Saraya Building, the Carlton Hotel, Yalbagha Bath, and Hanano barracks. Much of this damage is irreparable, having caused the partial collapse of some of these buildings or structural failures that are difficult to repair.

At any rate, no detailed survey of the damage has been carried out yet, pending the end of hostilities. What is certain, however, is that some buildings have been lost forever. Aleppo may well be one of Syria’s most damaged cities as a result of the conflict.

In the Aleppo Countryside, the damage is also extensive, especially in several sites of the Dead Cities. The damages range from illegal buildings in the sites; removal of historical stones; bulldozing and illegal excavations; and insurgent military deployment, particularly in the Semaan Castle.

There the violations are extensive, and include excavations and building in the yard of the northern monastery; building alongside the walls of the western building; and vandalism and removal of stones from the northeastern monastery, as well as damage sustained by the victory arch and the mosaic covering the floors of the baths, not to mention damage in the Baptistry Church.

Damage to archaeological sites

In Bosra (Daraa), a number of traditional houses and archaeological buildings were damaged, in addition to illegal buildings that sprung up in the archaeological zones. The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus was also damaged, and so was the moat of the castle. Parts of the walls of the Yaqout Mosque were destroyed, and there is damage to the interior walls and ceiling in the Abul Feda School, in addition to vandalism in more than one location in the western countryside of Daraa.

In Deir Ezzor and al-Hasaka, there are many building violations in a number of important archaeological hills, in addition to the sites known as Dura-Europos and Mari. In Dura-Europos, illegal excavations, especially in the burial areas, with some using heavy machinery, have destroyed around 80 percent of the total area of the site, in addition to destroying the walls of some of the temples there. In Mari, a number of walls were destroyed and there were illegal excavations done in the temples of Dagan, Ishtar, and Shamash. Parts of the ceiling of the royal palace were stolen, in addition to demolition in the walls and illegal excavations too.

Two major sites that the Syrian government has retaken had also sustained heavy damage – Krak des Chevaliers and Maaloula. In Krak des Chevaliers, the damage, albeit significant, was limited compared to what had been expected based on assessments relying on the rate of shelling. The fact that the army avoided bombing the castle directly or storming it spared it from sustaining more extensive damage.

After retaking the site, the authorities removed all traces of the militants’ erstwhile presence inside, including their makeshift dormitories, kitchens, and toilets, as well as explosives and booby traps. In June 2014, restoration works carried out by the Antiquities and Museums Directorate had come a very long way, restoring a large part of the stones that fell from the lower wall of the stable overlooking the moat; restoring the stones that fell from some of the openings of the internal wall of the outer ramparts; and restoring the mosaic of the arches in the corridors and the face of the damaged Knights Hall.

In Maaloula, the damage is severe as well. The majority of homes and alleys in the old city were destroyed in a fire. Cemeteries and caves were looted and vandalized.

Desecrated places of worship

In churches and monasteries, the damage is also substantial. Icons and liturgical artifacts were looted, crosses were broken, and fires were started in the buildings. In the monastery of Saint Takla, icons were looted and the church was damaged by fire. In the Monastery of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, the eastern and western walls were destroyed and the main dome collapsed. The churches of Saint Cosmas and Damian, and Saint Barabara were not spared from desecration and looting either.

After the insurgent groups withdrew, work began in earnest to clear the rubble from the roads and buildings, in preparation for restoration works. Churches were cleaned to make them able to accommodate worshippers again, and the historical rock of Saint Takla was fortified to prevent its collapse. The project for general restoration is still being studied and has not yet started, but the goals set for it look promising.

A large number of churches in Syria suffered partial or total destruction as a result of shelling, as happened in Homs, while others were looted and burned down, as what occurred in Maaloula, and others still were completely leveled like with the Armenian Church of the Martyrs in Deir Ezzor.

There are no accurate figures on the number of damaged churches and the type of damage they sustained, though the total number is somewhere between 40 and 100. Especially with ISIS’ expansion, the radical jihadi group destroyed or seized a number of churches in Deir Ezzor and al-Raqqa.

At first glance, it may seem that the damage sustained by churches in Syria is much less dramatic compared to other places of worship, specifically mosques. This is true if we compare raw figures. But if we compare them relative to their total number in the country, it is a completely different matter. The number of churches in Syria is about 400, and if we go by the minimum estimate of the number of churches damaged, that is 40 churches, the proportion would be 10 percent. Meanwhile, out of around 18,000 mosques in the country, 1,500 have been damaged, or 8.3 percent.

Concerning Sufi shrines, reports by the Directorate of Antiquities in Aleppo indicate 90 percent of them have been destroyed, especially in the hills of Aazaz, Sheikh Rih, Dabeq, and Akhtarin, in addition to those located on the outskirts of villages. In Manbej, all shrines in the region, including the shrine of Sheikh al-Aqeeli al-Manbeji, which is considered the most important shrine in the area, were destroyed. All shrines present around the Byzantine church on the road to Qalaat Najm were also destroyed, in addition to six Mamluk shrines near Manbej castle, and which are known as the Shahabuddin shrines. Those located in the areas of al-Bab, Nahiyet al-Zarba, al-Hader, al-Atarib, Tel al-Daman, Maskana, al-Khunfusa, and Deir Hafer were not spared either.

In Jobar, the synagogue at the most modest estimate dates back to the Middle Ages. The synagogue contains a large number of rare artifacts, including Torah scrolls and liturgical wares. It was looted by militants who seized the district, and neither the Directorate of Antiquities nor any other side has been able to prepare an inventory of missing or damaged effects due to the situation in the surrounding area.

In late August, the Syrian government began an offensive to retake Jobar, which means that the final fate of the synagogue and other heritage and archaeological sites will not be known until the operation ends and officials enter and survey the damage. There might be a pleasant surprise at the end, if what happened at Krak des Chevaliers is repeated in one way or another.

Theft of Syrian culture

Finally, the data on smuggling, looting, and illegal excavations remains inaccurate and difficult to verify. What is certain is that the phenomenon is endemic, but there are indications that give an idea about its extent, such as the number of artifacts confiscated by the authorities within Syria or in neighboring countries, and aerial photography of archaeological sites showing clearly the illegal excavations.

No doubt, smuggling artifacts beginning with excavation and not ending with their sale is a methodical process that can only be carried out by organized criminal groups. International and national legislation countering this phenomenon remain ineffective while some governments turn a blind eye to importing these unique items though they have nothing to do with their history or culture.

It remains to be said that the General Directorate of Museums and Antiquities has made and is making great efforts to preserve Syria’s heritage, despite the modest material and human resources at its disposal.

Maurice Qudeih is a Lebanese researcher

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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