Cultural heritage at risk: Syria

Palmyra, 2007 (photo: James Gordon, CC BY 2.0)

Palmyra, 2007 (photo: James Gordon, CC BY 2.0)

Syria, home to some of the oldest and culturally rich cities and archaeological sites in the world, is currently experiencing significant devastation. Damage has been reported at all of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Not only is direct shelling and military occupation a huge issue but additionally the breakdown in order often leads to widespread looting, as well as cases, as we have seen recently, of iconoclasm.

The situation has worsened since Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadists, whose strict Salafi interpretation of Islam deems the veneration of tombs and non-Islamic vestiges to be idolatrous, seized swathes of Syria and Iraq in recent months, destroying sites and burning precious manuscripts and archives. (Al-Akhbar)

Legions of ancient sites in Syria have been destroyed, damaged, or looted throughout the enduring conflict according to new satellite imagery.

UNITAR found that 24 sites were completely destroyed, 189 severely or moderately damaged and a further 77 possibly damaged.

Moreover, shocking stories of ancient citadels taken over by military factions are reported frequently and further damage constantly. Widespread looting has been reported at sites throughout the country, most notably, at Palmyra. The current situation in Syria highlights the plight of cultural heritage in countries exposed to warfare and political instability.

Syria’s cultural heritage endangered

Near eastern archaeology is arguably one of the most developed in the world. Longstanding research traditions have helped highlight the role of this area within major phases in the (pre)history of mankind. This has led to the development of archaeological and preservation/conservation projects through the collaboration of international and local teams. In Syria, almost every archaeological period is represented by a range of sites (more than 6,000 were recorded in 2010), each contributing in their unique ways to our understanding of the past. Archaeologists have witnessed evidence of Lower Paleolithic, modern humans walking out of Africa, the development of early agriculture, irrigation systems, urbanism, and writing systems, in places such as ‘Umm el Tlel, Abu Hureyra, Hamoukar, Ebla, Palmyra and Damascus. The country also currently has 6 UNESCO World Heritage sites:  Damascus (1979); Palmyra (1980); the ancient city of Bosra (1980); Aleppo (1986); the Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din (2006); and the ancient villages of Northern Syria (2011).

According to Bruce G. Trigger in his book A History of Archaeological Thought, published in 2006, most Arab and Muslim countries have created complex bureaucratic systems in order to protect their cultural heritage. In Syria, the legislation regarding the antiquities defines issues such as ownership and compensation as well as the features which constitute an “antiquity” in the first place (i.e. any goods manufactured, produced, written, or drawn that are more than 200 years old as well as any other goods that would not fit this category but would have an important historical status). These objects cannot be owned by individuals and are the inalienable property of the State. The Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) provided an officious structure for the preservation and study of this material. However, there are some issues partly inherent to the nature of this kind of structure. The lack of security in some of the regional museums, the limited inventories, and, in general, the poor documentation of the collections lead to unsteady situations in times of trouble, which put the cultural heritage of these countries in great danger (as already seen in Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, or again, in Hama, Syria, in 1982).

Several associations/organizations (see Appel à la préservation des musées syriens adressé aux institutions internationales et à la communauté internationale) have been keeping track of the damage done to cultural heritage since the beginning of the unrest. They all emphasize the danger of underestimating the threat under which cultural heritage currently finds itself. The collective Patrimoine Syrien en Danger (PAS) comments in a letter, dated 07/07/2011 (document #9575/1) and addressed by ‘Adel Safar, to each of the different ministries. Here ‘Adel Safar mentions that the country’s heritage is at risk of looting from specialized and highly trained groups aiming at ancient documents and artifacts. The collective suggests that this letter was using the danger of looting to legitimate some of their military actions, thus instrumentalizing Syria’s patrimony.

More recently, the Institute for the Study of War has issued regular situation reports on military activities throughout Syria. Widespread conflict leading to sustained instability in the country has jeopardized the safety of its most precious cultural heritage sites.

Actual damages can be broken down into different categories and vary in degrees of degradation. These range from the simple graffiti on a Roman temple at El Dumaier to the destruction of Qalaat el Mudeeq. An extensive report found on the Global Heritage Network, provided by Emma Cunlife from Durham University on May 16th 2012, lists most of the destruction known to us. In addition to this report, most of the sources available to us come from the Facebook group Patrimoine archéologique Syrien en danger where Syrian individuals share articles and Youtube videos of the destruction of material heritage. Only some of the videos are shared, but they can be viewed here. Some of this information has also been directly confirmed by independent sources in Syria.

The devastating effects of looting in Syria

This category encompasses illegal excavations as well as antique thefts and more generally summarizes any harm done to cultural heritage for commerce purposes. Following ‘Adel Safar’s letter, some governmental forces seem to have moved parts of the Der’a, Alpe, Quneitra, Hama, and Homs museum collections either to Damascus and/or to some other unknown locations. In this situation, the risk represented by the limited nature of the documentation and inventories of these collections is already considerable.

The most famous case since the beginning of the unrest is the case of the Hama museum where, possibly among other artifacts, a golden Aramaic statuette was stolen. Interpol published a call for vigilance, and it has featured it on the most wanted list since December 2011.

Still in the Hama area, it has been reported that the Shaïzar citadel has also been looted.

At the Crac des Chevaliers, Bassam Jamous, General Director of the DGAM talks about armed groups penetrating the castle and starting illegal excavations. The same kind of illegal activities have also been witnessed in the provinces of Der’a,Hama and Homs.

PAS also addresses the possible pillaging of some pieces in the museum of Homs.

In Tartous, Mr. Marwan Hassan, Director of the Antiquities of the city mentions the confiscation of more than 1,300 objects (Classical and Islamic period) in an attempt to smuggle artifacts out of the country.

At Tell Hamukar in the Khabur Basin, some individuals witnessed what seemed to be an illegal excavation and episodes of looting. There is even a report of a house being built on the tell (PAS). Instances might also have been witnessed at Tell Ashari, Tell Afis, Khan Shiekhoun, and Tell Acharneh.

At the site of Afamya, in the city of Hama, some mosaics have been stolen.

At Palmyra, in addition to the presence of tanks in the area, there has been some evidence of looting and destruction in the Diocletian camp, and around the Bel temple. As of May 2015, ISIS forces have captured the ancient city of Palmyra.

At Apamée, one mosaic has disappeared as well as the chapiteau of the Decumanus column in the center of the city.

Finally, one needs to keep in mind the danger generated by the absence of authority and the unrest in areas surrounding several regional museums, including Ma’aret el-Nu’man, Ebla-Tell Mardikh, Qal’at Jabar, and Deir ez-Zor.

This category covers the damages done to Syria’s patrimony through military or civil occupation of archaeological areas and the shelling of monuments.

Multiple religious buildings have been damaged. The mosques of Der’a, Bosra and Inkhil, and the mosque al-Tawhid have suffered severe shellings. The minarets of Qa’ab el-Ahbar (Homs) and Al-Tekkiyeh (Ariha) as well as the Khaled Ibn al-Walid mosque at Homs have been partially destroyed. In Aleppo, the PAS points out damage done to the tomb of the Sheikh Dahur al-Muhammad and Mosque Abou Der Al-Gefary. Some Christian sites have also undergone some damage. These include the Deir Mar Mousa al-Habashi (The Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian), Our Lady of Seydanya and Mar Elias monasteries, and the Umm el-Zinnar cathedral at Homs, where bullet impacts have been noticed. Even though the religious dimension of some of this destruction should not be overlooked, it is important to draw upon the fragmentation of our sources and the different reasons underlying the destruction of these monuments.

Military occupation also led to the destruction of several archaeological sites through shelling or the modification of landscapes. The monuments of Homs have been particularly damaged. In addition to the mosques previously mentioned, the dome of the Hammam al-Basha, Bab Dreb, the Suq al-Hashish, and possibly other parts of the Suq have been heavily damaged. In Hamma, the el-Arba’en quarter has been partly destroyed by fire. At Tell Sheikh Hamad, an Assyrian temple collapsed as the site was transformed into a battlefield. In the same way, the sites of Apamea (and its citadel), Palmyra, Bosra, Salamyeh-Chmemis castle, Ebla-Tell Mardikh, and Tell A’zzaz were heavily damaged when trenches and tank shelters were dug. An equal situation was witnessed at the Acheulean site of Latamne. Furthermore, in northern Syria, and especially in the region of Idlib, the area of the Limestone massif and its “dead cities” has also been the center of major destruction.  So far, damages have also been reported in the villages of Kafr Nubbel, Ain Larose, Al-Bara, and Deir Sunbel.

The civil occupation of archaeological areas has additionally led to the progressive destruction of monuments, mostly through the reuse of archaeological material in the construction of new houses, but also through active degradation. The latter is exemplified by the case of the Roman temple of El Dumaier where graffiti has been found on the wall. The same issue has been witnessed at Bosra where some walls now carry traces of paint. In the province of Der’a, civil occupation of the area led to the reuse of blocks from sites such as Tell ‘Ashari, Tell Umm Hauran, Tafas, Da’al, Sahm el-Golan, and the ancient city of Matta’iya(PAS). Around Quneitra, the local government has allowed the construction of new buildings in protected patrimonial areas. This seems to also be the case at sites such as Tell’Ashara (Terka), Jabal Wastani, Sheikh Hamad, Sura, and Sheikh Hassan.

What is being done to protect Syria’s heritage?

The unrest in Syria has lasted for more than a year now. Quickly after the first protests, the first damage to Syria’s cultural heritage was witnessed: local people using ancient stones to build their houses, the military digging archaeological sites to protect their tanks, fights in Homs and Hama destroying the cities culture. It is still unclear in which context some of the damage is carried out. It is ultimately the responsibility of the Syrian government and the DGAM to protect its heritage against any kind of destruction. Several institutions have raised their concerns about the apparent disregard of the Syrian government to this destruction. Recent UNESCO talks in Bamako raised concerns about the situation in Syria and mentioned the possibility of sending a team of experts into sites such as the Krak des Chevaliers, Salah ed-Din Crusader castles, and Palmyra.

INTERPOL also sent a “call for vigilance on looting of ancient mosaics in Syria,” aiming to recover a number a mosaics stolen from Afamya. This, therefore, suggests that the international pressure in Syria is increasing and will hopefully soon lead to a concrete effort made towards the protection of the Syrian patrimony and the common cultural heritage of humanity.

Cite this page as: SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone), "Cultural heritage at risk: Syria," in Smarthistory, January 30, 2018, accessed May 20, 2024,