Since March 2011, a bloody battle between regime and rebel forces in Syria has killed tens of thousands of people, displacing hundreds of thousands, and damaged some of the country’s most magnificent heritage sites. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has called for an end to the violence and for the protection of Syria’s archaeological resources. But looters and combatants remain deaf to international protests. While detailed information on the extent of the damage is hard to come by due to the security situation, archaeologists and ordinary Syrians have been documenting the destruction with news footage, witness accounts and theft reports.
Built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem from 1142 to 1271, the famous Crac des Chevaliers fortress is located in the the Jebel Libnan ash-Sharqiya (Anti-Lebanon Mountains) near Homs. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Crac des Chevaliers is one of the best preserved Crusader-era castles in the world and has attracted travellers and tourists for millennia. The fortress has been the scene of repeated fighting since June 2012, since it commands a view of the surrounding region. News reports and footage from July 2012 showed rebel fighters who had taken refuge in the massive structure while under attack by the Syrian army, with evidence of mortar shells damaging parts of the edifice.
Located at the crossroads of several ancient trade routes, Aleppo bears the imprint of the various peoples who have inhabited or controlled this commercial hub since the 2nd millennium BC, including the Assyrians, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans. The emblem of this ancient city is the 12th century citadel that includes the remains of mosques, palaces and baths; it is a testament to the Arab military power of the era. Initially spared by the conflict, Aleppo was struck by the violence in July 2012, when rebels launched a decisive assault for control of the city. A month later, the citadel was first hit by a shell, and then a fire ravaged the souks of the Old City. While the regime blamed rebel fighters for the damage, opposition activists said the Syrian army was responsible.
Along with the Old City and Citadel, the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo is included on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The building, which dates back to the 13th century, has suffered severe damage from the fighting and bombing. Nine months after the outbreak of violence in Aleppo, the largest mosque in the city was seriously damaged.
An oasis in the desert northeast of Damascus, Palmyra is situated on the crossroads of ancient trade routes linking the Roman Empire with Persia, India and China, and it bears the imprint of several civilisations. Once a stronghold of Queen Zenobia in the 3rd century, Palmyra has long attracted archeologists and tourists from across the world, who came to admire the ruins of a city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. When the Syrian uprising began, Palmyra was not affected by the violence for several months. But in early 2013, fighting broke out in the region. The Temple of Baal was seriously damaged in the fighting between rebels and regime forces. NGOs have repeatedly warned of looting threats at the site.
Located near the ancient ruins of Apamea in Hama Province, the medieval citadel of al Madiq has suffered enormously from the conflict. Images show sections of wall collapsing following heavy shelling by the Syrian army - notably in April 2012, when the rebels had taken refuge there.
In addition to the destruction due to heavy fighting, cultural heritage organisations have also denounced the looting of artifacts due to the turmoil and insecurity in Syria – as was the case in Iraq in 2003. Several Syrian museums have reported thefts, including museums in the city of Homs, where the situation has been particularly chaotic for several months. Interpol has joined UNESCO in warning of an “imminent threat” to Syria’s cultural heritage. In early 2012, a theft of ancient mosaics from a museum near the ruins of Apamea was reported to Interpol.
Another emblem of Syria’s ancient cultural heritage is the 2nd-century Roman theatre in Bosra, which until recently hosted shows. Following the Syrian uprising, the walls of an adjacent Roman temple were at one stage draped with slogans supporting the rebellion. ‘‘[The rebels] realised that this way, they could get international attention,'' explained French archaeologist and researcher Mathilde Gelin.
Located in southeastern Syria near the Iraqi border, the Dura-Europos site is often called “the Pompeii of the desert''. It houses the remains of a primitive city dating from the 4th century BC and was home to a succession of different peoples, including Macedonians, Greeks and Romans. It’s a very important site for archaeologists as it was abandoned in a 256-7 conquest and no latter buildings were built on the site. A museum and research centre at the site were looted in July 2012.