A crossroads in the fertile crescent of the Middle East, Syria has been the site of one civilization following a previous one.
The country’s monuments and artifacts are, so to speak, piled one layer atop another. But all these treasures are now at risk, as the country’s civil war drags on, and its history is in danger of being obliterated.
Last August, the Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, called on all parties involved in the conflict in Syria to safeguard the country’s cultural heritage and take all possible measures to avoid further damage.
The United Nations agency that works to protect historic places, UNESCO has classified as endangered all six of Syria’s World Heritage sites. But the destruction continues, some as the result of warfare, others due to intentional looting.
An oasis in the Syrian desert northeast of Damascus, the ancient city of Palmyra was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. It was a wealthy caravan centre from 44 BC to 272 AD, on the trade route linking Persia, India and China, alternately independent from and under the rule of the Roman Empire. Its culture was largely Greek.
One of its rulers, Zenobia, who became queen of Palmyra in 267 AD, overran much of the Roman Middle East, even conquering Egypt, until defeated and taken as a hostage to Rome.
Palmyra’s art and architecture, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.
Its major public monuments include the Temple of the Semitic god Bel, the Agora (the centre of spiritual and political life), and the theatre, along with other temples and urban quarters. Outside the city walls are the remains of a Roman aqueduct and immense necropolises (cemeteries).
At first occupied by rebels, now it is the Syrian Army using the ruins for military purposes and artillery pieces and tanks have been positioned at the site.
Illegal digging has also accelerated. Grave robbers have stolen numerous objects from Palmyra’s tombs and smuggled them to Beirut. “I feel as if I’m dead,” Khalil al-Hariri, an archaeologist and the director of the Palmyra Museum, told the New York Times.
Another heritage site, the Old City of Aleppo, has been a battleground since the summer of 2012. Shelling gutted medieval covered markets after insurgents took refuge there, and government troops are now positioned in its 13th-century Citadel, a fortified palace in the centre of the old city. Last year the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, built in 1090, was reduced to rubble during an exchange of heavy weapons fire between government forces and rebels.
Fighting has also damaged the Krac des Chevaliers, built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem from 1142 to 1271. One of the world’s best-preserved Crusader castles, it was occupied by insurgents but recently recaptured by government troops. An air raid damaged one of its towers.
Syria’s past as well as its present and future are being destroyed.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.