An affront to humanity:

Syria's cultural heritage under fire

Sofia Misenheimer

12th century CE stone lintel at the entrance of the Aleppo Citadel royal palace. ([email protected])

A brutal war is grinding Syria’s magnificent cultural heritage into dust. In addition to the conflict’s horrific human toll—with over 220,000 killed to date, according to the United Nations—remarkable monuments that have stood for millennia are currently threatened or under fire. Syria’s historical treasures such as the ancient Norias of Hama, and the medieval Citadel of Aleppo encompass irreplaceable structures and artifacts that document a thousand years of Roman and Byzantine civilization, the first years of Islam and Christianity, and successive periods of great achievement by many cultures. 

Seventeen original Byzantine norias remained in Hama until last year, when several were burned down by fighters. (Lucy Caldicott)

As the war in Syria rages through its fourth year, the country’s humanitarian catastrophe overshadows media coverage of the continuing destruction of cultural heritage sites.  But the ongoing assault on Syria’s historical legacy must not be forgotten, nor accepted.  

“The protection of cultural heritage is inseparable from the protection of human lives, and should be an integral part of humanitarian and peacebuilding efforts,” said Ghalia Elkerdi, vice president of the Syrian Students’ Association at McGill. “The destruction of our precious heritage gravely affects our identity and history and all humanity.”

This sentiment reflects a worldwide consensus dating back to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The international treaty, which was written in response to The Second World War, articulates that, “damage to cultural property [is] damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind.” Syria is a signatory of the Hague Convention and the two protocols that have amended it over the years. Yet in Syria today, there is no evidence of the Convention’s fundamental affirmation that the protection of cultural heritage is a global responsibility.

Six Syrian World Heritage Sites remain inscribed to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) List of World Heritage in Danger—the most in any one country worldwide. And no international initiatives seem slated to prevent the further demolition of Palmyra, a World Heritage Site no longer simply under threat, but already partially lost.

In May, when Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham  (ISIS) forces seized control of Palmyra, militants took sledgehammers to statues, tombs, and shrines, pulverizing some of the most well-preserved relics of Greco-Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic culture in the world. They declared the antiquities were idolatrous, according to ISIS’ strict interpretation of Islamic law, although the group continues to profit from the looting and black market sale of such artifacts. 

The destruction of our precious heritage gravely affects our identity and history and all humanity.
-- Ghalia Elkerdy

Islamic State fighters later tortured and beheaded Khaled al-Assad, the 82-year-old Palmyran chief archaeologist and site caretaker, for refusing to reveal the location of hidden antiquities. They detonated explosives within the Temple of Bel and Temple of Baalshamin last month, razing both 2,000 year-old structures to the ground. Just last week, militants also blew up the iconic Arch of Triumph that once welcomed visitors to Syria’s oasis city, a renowned cultural centre of the ancient world.

“The disgusting affront to cultural heritage in Syria is reflective of many war patterns throughout history,” said Marion Hunter, U3 Arts. “The Nazis [destroyed] and stole an immense amount of art during World War II, and many private cultural belongings were sold in the black market. The global community reprimanded the Nazis for this war crime, yet the same thing is happening today in Syria.”

Palmyra’s cultural treasures, including those al-Asaad protected with his life, represent part of the collective human history that binds global citizens. They represent the continuity of human existence and commemorate the contributions of past cultures to the development of modern beliefs, social values and technologies. 

The Lion of al-Lāt statue was among the first statues destroyed by ISIS last summer. Its ancient inscription read: "[Godess] al-Lāt will bless whoever will not shed blood in the sanctuary"

“Civilizations are built upon landmarks that hold the identity of cities and cultures,” said Hunter. “When longstanding pieces of architecture are destroyed, it wipes out not just the physical landmarks, but also the history behind them.” 

The degradation of cultural property during conflict has long been a means of asserting cultural dominance and inflicting maximum damage on an opposing side. For instance, the capture of Constantinople—now the city of Istanbul—by the invading Ottoman army in 1453, resulted in the destruction of Christian heritage sites dating back hundreds of years.

“Currently, scholars are trying to find remnants of the old Christian city, but it’s inaccessible because a whole new civilization was built on top. Finding the old city would mean destroying the current one that has been built upon for centuries,” Hunter said. “History shows that protecting Syrian cultural heritage is of utmost importance, because of how simple it is to wipe out centuries of history during war.” 

This view was shared by Philosopher Emer de Vattel, who wrote in his influential treatise, The Law of Nations, “For whatever cause a country is ravaged, we ought to spare those edifices which do honor to human society [….] It is declaring one’s self to be an enemy of mankind, thus wantonly to deprive them of these wonders.” 

Over 200 years later, his words still ring true. But the list of cultural property in Syria deserving both the attention and protection of the global community remains extensive. If action is not taken to prevent the further loss of Syria’s cultural heritage, it is unlikely that future generations will enjoy the same tangible connection to Syria’s unique and diverse history as those in the past.

The two-thousand-year-old Temple of Bel in Palmyra before it was leveled by ISIS in September. (Paul Stocker)

Syria's rich cultural harvest

For centuries, Syria was a popular destination for the devout, the scholarly, and the adventurous, eager to connect with humanity’s history.  Among the most notable of Syria’s 19th century visitors was Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, best known today as the first European to encounter the city of Petra, in what is now Jordan.  Burckhardt’s 1812 excursion to Petra was a side trip from Syria, where he resided for several years while documenting historical sites throughout the country. His depiction of Syria’s lush cultural landscape in Travels in Syria and the Holy Land (1812) makes for painful reading against the backdrop of today’s war. 

Burckhardt recounts his sojourn in and around the northwestern city of Idlib, frequently in the news over the past four years as an early opposition stronghold captured by Syrian regime forces in 2012. Since the outbreak of the conflict, ongoing clashes in Idlib have resulted in countless casualties and the urban centre has been mostly levelled. Today, Idlib’s strategic location as a provincial capital ensures that it will remain a locus of conflict, and nearby antiquities are under constant threat.

But in Burckhardt’s time, the city of about 1,000 houses was a regional hub for textiles with a thriving industry in olive-based soap, as well as home to a diverse population of Arab and Turkish Muslims, and Christians of Armenian and Greek Orthodox communities. Burckhardt reported on rivalries among prominent local families, and noted that local industry paid an annual percentage to defray the expenses of the holy cities, Mecca and Medina. The payment was traditionally sent with the annual pilgrim caravan, which Burckhardt once accompanied as a convert making the Hajj pilgrimage.  

Burckhardt’s later travels brought him to a crowded corner of the Hama souk, where he chanced upon an elaborately carved stone with striking inscriptions he couldn’t decipher. Unable to attribute the artifact to any known ancient civilization, Burckhardt recorded his discovery and moved on.

The Hama Stones on display in the Ancient Orient Gallery of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. (Paul Stocker)

Nearly six decades later, Syriologist William Wright tracked down the stone and three others similar to it. He arranged the transfer of the “Hama stones” to a museum in Istanbul for further study. Subsequent scholarship determined that the petroglyphs were among the first proofs of a previously unknown advanced Hittite civilization that had flourished in Hama over two millennia prior. The Hama stones were the first fruits of a rich harvest of Hittite language artifacts from an ancient culture that used the earliest known Indo-European language with hieroglyphic and cuneiform scripts. The stones demonstrate that each antiquity is an irreplaceable clue to humanity’s past. Few places on earth rival Syria for the wealth of clues that it holds.

Tayfun Bilgin, a PhD. student in the Department of Near Eastern Studies in the University of Michigan, says the prevailing pro-Greek bias in the West tends to obscure the fact that Ancient Syria was home to highly sophisticated cultures long before the Greeks of Ionia began to hit their stride late in the seventh century BCE.

“The written history of Syria goes as far back as the third millennium BCE. Many civilizations developed in the region prior to the Greeks,” Bilgin said. “Coastal city states of the Syro-Palestine area were rich trading centres throughout the second and first millenniums.” 

As such, they were prized targets over the centuries for surrounding empires looking to expand their boundaries through conquest. The incredible multitude of artifacts in Syria illustrate this storied past.

Syrian government tanks in front of a destroyed mosque in the northern city of Azaz. (Christiaan Treibert)

Ancient cultural achievements versus contemporary cultural atrocities

For more than a thousand years the Omari Mosque in Daraa remained practically unblemished, as one of the first Islamic monuments in Syria.  With a square minaret and arched entryways, this seventh-century structure exemplified an architectural style seen only in first generation mosques erected during the initial expansion of the faith.  Due to its historical and religious significance, the mosque became a symbolic centre of popular peaceful demonstrations at the onset of the Syrian war in 2011 and was later used as a hospital for wounded protesters.  But bombardment by the Syrian Army two years later toppled the mosque’s ancient minaret and reduced its façade to rubble. 

Omari Mosque before and after the April 2013 bombardment. (Suic2011)

Not only have the rate of physical attacks on cultural sites increased in Syria over the last few years, but so has the unprecedented scale of organized looting, illicit trafficking, and sale of cultural objects. 

“The looting is even worse than the shelling,” said Dr. Rafah Jwejati, a scholar of late antiquity and early Christianity, who received her PhD from McGill in 2009.  “It tears away our history forever. When it’s gone, it’s gone.”  

A Damascus-born Montrealer, Jwejati is personally familiar with the adverse effects of the war on Syria’s cultural heritage. She remains connected to her country of origin through her work on Syria’s early Christian artifacts. But one by one, the artifacts that Jwejati specializes in have disappeared.

One early Byzantine mosaic Jewjati studied for over a decade, featuring a fifth century CE representation of the Holy Sepulchre, a highly sacred Christian site, was stolen from the Hama museum and presumably sold on the black market. While Jwejati provided authorities with the only image of the ancient mosaic, one taken for her work, she has little hope that the artifact will be found and returned to the museum.

The looting is even worse than the shelling. It tears away our history forever. When it's gone, it's gone.
-- Dr. Rafah Jwejati

Syria remains largely unexplored, with thousands of unstudied archaeological sites, leaving a vast selection of undocumented artifacts at risk of illicit trafficking.  Although the practice has been ongoing since before the conflict, the pace of looting has increased at vulnerable sites. According to the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA), at least one third of Syria’s archaeological sites are ISIS-controlled and have been largely emptied of valuables.

Palmyra at sunset. (Ed Brambley)

Can the lost past live again?

Syria has survived the passage of many forces that have strewn the landscape with ruins, making her citizens undeniably resilient and carving a strong reputation for the country as a crossroads of civilizations. But the tragic humanitarian consequences of the Syrian war are unfortunately all many know about the country.  

Idlib gained attention at the start of the conflict as a brutal combat zone, but the region is actually one of great archaeological significance. The ancient city of Palmyra was a global tourism magnet for years, but has become nothing more than a crossroads for tanks. While the ancient ruins of Apamea, which housed centuries worth of stunning mosaics, have been ransacked and thieves have bulldozed priceless artifacts. These episodes are mere pages in the book of international human patrimony that have been shredded by conflict. 

Young boy sits atop Palmyran antiquity. (Alessandra Kocman)

Syria is a unique repository of irreplaceable treasures drawn from the shared legacy of the human race and home to a diverse population directly affected by the erosion of the country’s cultural patrimony. 

 “Syria’s cultural heritage is a source of national identity and pride,” said Jwejati.  “Our land houses memories of the first human settlers; our past reflects on the character of the people.  Beyond cultural or political divides, our humanity is at stake.” 

As the wellbeing of Syria’s people must be an urgent priority for the international community, so too must the preservation of their culture and heritage. For now, however, Syria’s war continues, and those targeting museums and ancient sites for looting and destruction clearly have the upper hand. The already devastating effects of the war on Syria’s cultural heritage demand urgent action.  It’s not too late, but the loss is already beyond reckoning.