Six Years of War: Syria’s Lost Cultural Heritage

 /  Sept. 10, 2017, 3:32 p.m.


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In 2011, Damascus presented a thriving city life with all the glitz and glamour of a penthouse party on Fifth Avenue. Celebrities shot commercials on the street and weekend parties in rooftop pools provided time for locals to unwind. Once Monday came around, students attended established schools and universities while businessmen continued to work in one of the fastest growing nations in the world. In addition to a stable economy, Syria boasted six UNESCO World Heritage sites with beautiful ancient mosques and cities spread across the country that attracted international tourists.

Six years later, civil war has divided Syria and damaged nearly every aspect of the nation’s identity. Shelling, smoke, and gunshots have become routine. Damascus café owner Israel Jabri explained to New Statesman journalist Christina Lamb, “Before when [people] heard shelling, they ran into the road, as if I knocked over this jug of water and everyone jumped from the table.” Today locals have become accustomed to the sounds of war. “Now they just stay and continue to drink their coffee,” said Jabri. As the war intensified in complexity, divides deepened through conflict between religious ideologies. What began as a two-sided war evolved into a multifaceted struggle for power with no forthcoming end.

The physical damage to Syria’s cities has devastated the country, but the majority of the world remains ambivalent in its call to action toward the humanitarian and cultural crisis. While those outside the Middle East may intermittently hear about the latest advance or foreign military involvement in the conflict, mainstream media has not focused on the effects of the catastrophic damage inflicted upon a once lively cultural center of the Middle East. Today all six of Syria’s UNESCO World Heritage sites have been damaged if not destroyed.

Aleppo’s Old Town became a world heritage site in 1986 due to the city’s Citadel and Great Umayyad Mosque, both of which were considered examples of the world’s most well-preserved Islamic architecture. After protests began in 2011, organized violence and fighting came to Aleppo in July of 2012 and formally lasted until December of 2016. During this time, 30 percent of the Old Town was destroyed, and 60 percent was reported severely damaged by the United Nations cultural organization. In spring of 2013, the Great Umayyad Mosque suffered destruction during a confrontation between government and rebel forces; both sides hold the other accountable for the mosque’s destruction. The Citadel has been spared from demolition but suffered damages during war.

After five years of fighting, Assad’s regime, accompanied by Russian military support, overcame Aleppo’s rebel forces by siege, signalling what many saw as a favorable turning point in the war for Assad. Outsiders such as the United Nations cultural organization, along with a handful of Syrians, such as members of the Aleppo People’s Initiative, see the destruction of heritage sites as devastating. Nonetheless, it remains a subordinate concern to the majority of Aleppo’s residents. Civilians and comrades’ bodies lay beneath the surface of the city’s still smoking rubble, a fact that supersedes most concern for cultural artifacts.

One of the most recent scenes of destruction caused by the civil war occurred in Palmyra, a city that once acted as a major trading port connecting the Mediterranean Sea and Euphrates River. The ancient city housed beautiful temples and architecture of which the ruins were declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. In May 2015, ISIL took control of the city and in August released photographs of both the Temple of Baal Shamen and Bel covered in smoke after bombing. Control over the city shifted between the Syrian army and ISIL between 2016 and early 2017; in January of 2017 the ancient theater and Teraplyon, “a square monument on the Grand Colonnade consisting of four groupings of four columns each,” were destroyed.

Damascus, despite faring better than most of Syria’s major cities, has also suffered substantial losses of cultural heritage. 2013 revealed the extent to which Assad’s regime would push to subdue any opposition activities. The year began with a chemical weapon attack on citizens of Damascus, which prompted the global community to become further involved in the nation’s civil conflict. Physical destruction inflicted upon Damascus includes the Jobar Synagogue, which many referred to as the geographic location of the anointing of Elisha as Elijah’s disciple. Inside, the synagogue’s walls were covered by scrolls. Decorative chandeliers illuminated carefully hand woven rugs which covered the cool beige stone flooring. Caretakers guarded the synagogue’s scrolls, Torahs, and other artifacts after  it retired from serving as a regularly used synagogue in the 1990s. For decades, it remained an important site for the Syrian-Jewish community. The synagogue first took damage from mortar fire which led to looting and an eventual complete destruction of the building by the end of 2013. Since then, Damascus has remained relatively unscathed in comparison to other Syrian cities, but renewed and intensified fighting began again in the city during spring of 2017.

These three cases of destruction in Syria only encompass a miniscule fraction of the carnage that has occurred across the country in the past six years, but as religious factions continue to divide and conflict with one another, differentiating a side for foreign aid support has become difficult. Nations aligned against Assad can no longer comfortably aid rebel forces due to differing sects of rebel forces continuing to grow and showing disregard for moral codes of warfare.

Giving aid to any party involved in the war will not guarantee an attempt at preserving Syria’s cultural landmarks and artifacts, as they continue to find themselves at the center of this brutal civil war. Crac des Chevaliers—a magnificent castle with structures and architecture dating from the Byzantine period that UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site in 2006—started being used in the war by Free Syrian Army fighters as a military base in July of 2012. The conflict led to the Syrian military shelling the castle and eventually claiming it as their own, leaving both parties at fault for the its destruction. No party willingly accepts fault for the destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage; rather, it has become a blame game perpetuated by propaganda and a lack of accountability. Limited journalistic access to Syria continues to leave outside countries unable to identify the culprits of these continuing acts of destruction.

The issue is further complicated by a steady stream of effective propaganda. Media scholar Ethan Zuckerburg noted, while many YouTube videos and media shared by civilians prove helpful for documenting the war, “Others are propaganda, with piles of burning tires used to provide a smoky backdrop to dramatize the effects of war on a particular neighborhood or ethnic group.” Zuckerburg concludes, “Documentation practiced by Syrian rebels and Occupiers is explicitly a form of activist speech. As such we are advised to be on guard to read it as persuasive, not reportorial.” Therefore, documenting the events of the war continues to prove more difficult when access to production of media becomes readily available to insiders, and journalists from the outside are denied entry.

Despite the increased access to communication across the world from advanced technology, major setbacks stand in the way for activist groups attempting to aid in protecting and preventing future destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage. One of the largest obstacles for the United States, and its ability to collaborate with cultural protection agencies in order to coordinate with organizations in Syria, are the Syrian Sanctions Regulations. These sanctions prohibit “collaborative work with the Syrian government and its instrumentalities, which includes the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums.” This directly interferes with American professionals who wish to aid in the preservation of historic sites in Syria as they are unable to communicate or send support to the national organization responsible for protecting Syria’s heritage locations.

Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen, authors of Syria Speaks, a Syrian art collective focusing on work created in response to the war, succinctly articulated the opinion of a growing amount of Syrians by stating they do not “support the regime anymore; but they have lost their ability to back the revolution because it has become so complicated.” They continued by saying, “Those who participated in it have changed, as have its political perspectives.” A rebellion against a national government has evolved into a conflict with few clear lines of affiliation, creating a nation with historic cultural heritage desperate for fresh air.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.


Emma Dyer