A Culture Under Fire

The Erosion of Syria’s Culture, History, and Identity

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Since March 2011, Syria has been in the grasp of a devastating civil war.  Casualties are nearing 100,000, with the vast majority of those casualties estimated to be civilians.  Millions more remain internally displaced with neither shelter nor food.  The conflict has caused over one million more Syrians to flee to neighboring nations.  And yet, Syria’s social landscape is not the only casualty of war; shells, bombs, and hatred are also tearing away at the country’s cultural fabric. 

The area of Syria is considered one of the birthplaces of civilization.  It has a rich history and culture that has been shaped by numerous ethnicities and religions, and its past is marked by trade and intercultural exchange.  Damascus itself was built in the Third Millennium, making it one of the world’s oldest cities and the original home of affluent craft industries that produced many of the world’s swords and lace.  Aleppo, a bustling metropolis and Syria’s largest city, is one of the most continuously occupied cities on earth.  Geography placed Syria at the heart of human history, as it sits astride the great channel of trade, the Silk Road, linking East to West.  All of the commodities of the Old World, from spices and fabrics to gold and ivory, passed through Syria’s ancient cities before continuing on to Asia and the West. 

Conquerors naturally followed merchants through the routes and locations that carried and produced such valuable goods. The Persians, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Islamic Caliphs, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the French, and the British have all sought to dominate this important region for its historical, cultural, and ethnic significance as well as its strategic geographic location.  Syria is home to once dominant Roman cities, the mighty castles of the Crusaders, and the most opulent Islamic palaces and markets.  Syria is home to many of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites (WHS), which are listed as having special cultural or physical significance to the world, and which include such landmarks as the pyramids of Egypt and Independence Hall in Pennsylvania.  Syria is home to six of these sites. Neither cultural significance nor historical value, however, has stopped the annihilation of these sites, as each and every one of them has been, in some way or another, damaged by the conflict that is now threatening to consume the region.Since the war began, these historic sites and artifacts have been subject to ongoing degradation.  These icons have not been spared by three primary causes of artifact destruction in warfare: use as a military stronghold (and subsequent targeting), looting, and negligence. 

Crac des Chevaliers in Homs, one of the world’s most famous castles, has been shelled by artillery as the Syrian army attempts to dislodge rebel snipers.  Regarded as the finest example of medieval castle architecture anywhere in the world, Crac des Chevaliers was the site of peaceful antigovernment protests in March when it originally came under fire.  The shelling lead initially to damaging of the outer walls, as well as the elegant Crusader chapel inside.  As the war is continually fought on the streets around the structure, accurate damage assessment cannot be performed. Other churches and old markets in Homs now lay in ruin.  The Cathedral of Um al-Zennar, which dates to the dawn of Christianity, 59AD, has been subject to heavy shelling and now is nearly completely destroyed. The Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, named after one of the greatest generals in history, has been badly damaged. 


An FSA fighter is seen standing outside the partially destroyed walls of Crac des Chevaliers
Photo credit: Sulome Anderson, Foreign Policy

A short distance away, the Hama museum, which has been short-staffed due to the conflict, was completely unattended last summer due to a regime blockade.  A golden Aramaic statue that dates back to the 8th century BC was stolen and is yet to be recovered.  This precious item was on Interpol’s most wanted list in December of 2011. 

In Palmyra, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, ruins lay scattered across a desert oasis 150 miles northeast of Damascus.  Palmyra is an ancient city once ruled by the Romans, who dedicated much time and effort to make the city a symbol of the kingdom’s power and affluence.  Its strategic placement rendered it a prime center for trade, linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman Empire.  Looting has been reported throughout the archaeological site, including in the Temple of Bel complex, the Camp of Diocletian, and the Valley of the Tombs. The Syrian government has also reported illegal excavations in the tombs of Palyrma.  The security and monetary resources allocated to the protection of these sites and artifacts before the conflict has now been wholly reassigned to the war effort. The sites, then, are now defenseless against looters and destruction. 

Some of the most extensive destruction has occurred at the ancient Roman city of Apamea, less than 50 miles northwest of Hama. Plunderers have taken advantage of the chaos as they arrive in Apamea with digging equipment and escape with priceless Roman mosaics and column capitals. There is speculation that these looters are part of a wider network of criminals operating in the Middle East, who pillage archaeological sites for later resale on the black market. In an effort to protect Syria’s heritage, government officials have put in place harsh penalties for those caught and convicted.  But the 15-year jail sentence assigned to looters does little to dissuade any attempts on procuring precious artifacts that are well worth the risk. 


A child plays on a destroyed regime tank by the rubble of a mosque in Aleppo
Photo Credit: Sulome Anderson, Foreign Policy

And although bombardment and looting are the primary reasons for the sites’ destruction, regime forces and criminals are not the only responsible parties.  Refugees have been known to seek shelter and dig latrines in these sites, as well as dig for profitable archeological artifacts to later sell over Syria’s borders as they seek to restore their livelihood. The Syrian government has lost control of hundreds of miles of its border with Iraq and Turkey, and treasures are being smuggled out in this way on a daily basis. One report claims that $2 billion worth of artifacts have already left the country.

Of course, the destruction of materials and artifacts does not compare to the torture and slaughter of tens of thousands of people. But these sites and shrines not only contain and preserve the development and history of a culture, but also a sense of identity and heritage. They are a point of pride for local communities and religions. Perhaps more tangibly, these sites draw millions of tourists and finances to Syria each year. With a once booming industrial and agricultural economy that also pulled much of its resources from its tourism industry, Syria in its reconstruction stage will need the international appeal of these historic sites to fill the gaps in a recovering industrial economy. What remains of these sites will prove to be a point of reference for Syrians seeking to redevelop both their cultural identity and their lifestyle.

In order to stop the devastation of some of the worlds most prized possessions, people must be informed of the situation.  People must know that there is a conflict occurring in a sacred part of the world that is killing many hundreds of thousands and destroying their heritage.  It falls to the media, international organizations, governments, and NGOs to publicize the damage and destruction of points of culture, history, and identity. The international community can strengthen legislation against the illegal antiquities trade, which drives looting in war zones.  It is time to exert pressure on both the Regime and the Opposition to ensure the safety of Syria’s treasures, as well as to create plans to assess and safeguard sites once the regime falls.  Syria’s cultural primacy will play a crucial role in stimulating the nation’s economy and society in a post-war and post-Assad Syria. 


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