Syria’s 4000-year-old civilisation is under threat
Syrian heritage sites across the country have been subject to months of damage after bombardments, arson and looting have taken their toll on Syria’s world-renowned treasures
.Since the Mesopotamian civilisation 4,000 years ago, the cultural wealth of Syria [linked to its special geographical location], has been the crucible of all the world's civilisations: the Romans, Ancient Greeks, Persians, Hittites, Assyrians, Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Sumerians as well as the Syriacs.
But the question needs to be asked. Who protects this ancient heritage from a fate it has been facing for almost two years?
International law has not lent a hand. The 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict forbids damage to artefacts, just like the 1998 Rome Statute at the International Criminal Court [ICC] which forbids: "Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected.”
But these statutes have not stopped either side in the Syrian conflict from destroying and looting prized artefacts.
The Syrian opposition accuses the regime of destroying and looting antiquities and ancient sites, having documented such acts, including the torching of Aleppo's Medieval market [added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1986] or the bombardment of the Citadel of Aleppo [one of the world's oldest and largest citadels] later transforming it into a makeshift barracks for regime forces.
The destruction of ancient sites in Homs has been most noticeable. The minaret of the Ayyubid-era Kaab al-Ahbar Mosque was destroyed alongside the minaret of the Mamluk-era Wahshi and Thawban Mosque. The Ayyubid-era Nouri market was also shelled, while the Umm al-Zennar church, which was build underground in 59CE, suffered serious and lasting damage.
The local museum in the ancient town of Palmyra was looted and Syrian authorities reported that the eighth-century statue of an Aramaic god was stolen while Greek columns sustained bullet holes. Regime forces were positioned at Fortress Ibn Maan while the Krak des Chevaliers was bombarded for allegedly housing armed rebels. The city's museum was also looted.
Antiquities and archaeological sites elsewhere have suffered the same fate. Some antiquities in Daraa have been purposefully vandalised and ruined, including the sites known as "the Cradle of the King's Daughter."
Antiquities have not fared any better in Idlib and Rif Dimashq and the Hama museum was looted as well.
International papers have backed up rebel reports. A Global Heritage Fund [GHF] report from late last year closely detailed the state of Syrian antiquities.
According to the report, violent clashes took place at the Tel Sheikh Hamad site in the ancient Assyrian city of Dur-Katlimmu and the remains of the Assyrian shrine were destroyed. Clashes also took place around al-Madik castle in the ancient city of Apamea.
The report also mentioned three Byzantine sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List which have been destroyed, along with the main landmarks of ancient Hama and its old neighbourhoods with their unique architectural style. The neighbourhood of al-Kilaniya, whose history goes back through Ayybid, Mamluk and Ottoman times, was completely destroyed. The museums of Deir Ezzor, Maarat al-Numan, Raqqa and Jaabar were all looted, the report said.
While the Syrian regime's responsibility for the destruction is irrefutable [particularly since we have video footage and eyewitness testimonies], the opposition has been known to engage in trafficking in order to fund arms sales.
Activist and member of the Syrian National Council [SNC] Osman Bediwi had previously told Al Jazeera that downtown Maarat al-Numan had sustained serious damage, especially the statue of Abil Alaa al-Maarri, Khan Asaad Pasha, Khan Murad Pasha, the city's history museum and the historic market, where regime forces had been based.
Bediwi said no-one knew what was stolen from the museum. Inventories were unavailable and museum employees had not returned to work to survey the items. Bediwi also accused President Bashar al-Assad of deliberately neglecting Syria's antiquities and history and going out of his way to destroy them "so that Syria's history would start with him, with the Assads."
Jaber Bakr, a spokesperson for a Syrian heritage group, noted an interesting “coincidence.” In provinces with a lion’s share of antique and archaeological sites, the fighting seems to be most intense.
Despite the regime and opposition exchanging blame for the large-scale destruction, Bakr says the government is politically and morally responsible for protecting the country's cultural and human heritage. "Regime forces are obviously more at fault, because they have the most destructive weapons," Bakr said, denying reports that rebels were selling off treasures for weapons.
Some of the Syrian intelligentsia have called on the international community to protect Syria's antiquities and cultural heritage at a festival in Doha. They called on the international community to stand up to the “vandalisation” of Syrian history, which they said was committed by the regime's war-machine and "an antiquities-smuggling mafia" made up of regime cronies.
But can anyone really protect Syria’s cultural heritage?