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The Cultural Legacy of Syria is at Risk

It was 2010, the summer before protests erupted in Dera’a. In Palmyra — a UNESCO-ranked world heritage site set in its own desert oasis — the ancient stones glowed gold in the setting sun. Visitors, some international, most Syrian, wandered among the ruins, photographing themselves in front of the 3rd-century monumental arch. Just beyond, boys from the nearby town of Tadmur kicked a football about in the sand, with the 17th-century Qala’at Ibn Maan hilltop castle behind them. But today, just like in the rest of Syria, sites such as Palmyra are suffering, caught up within the fighting which has seen a country turn against itself.

Much of the country’s cultural heritage has been damaged in this long and violent war. Castles and fortresses, such as Krak de Chevaliers, have been used as military bases — both rebel and regime forces acknowledge their strategic advantages. Ancient cities such as Apamea and Bosra have seen columns and mosaics destroyed. Mosques and churches have been shelled.  Then there are the ‘living archaeological sites’, embedded within Syria’s cities, often caught up in aerial bombing and frontline fighting. In the winding alleyways of Aleppo’s Al-Madina souq, parts of which date back to the 13th-century, historical memory blended with bustling daily life until its ancient structures went up in flames in September 2012.

Radical opposition groups have intentionally destroyed historical artifacts that contradict their religious visions — a common occurrence in modern conflict according to nationalism and identity expert, Anthony Smith. In February 2013 the Al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra beheaded a statue of the blind Abbasid poet and philosopher, Abul ‘Ala a-Ma’arri, in his hometown of Ma’arat al-Nu’man. In Ma’loula, one of the last remaining villages where Western Aramaic was spoken, churches have been ransacked. In Raqqa, Islamic State (IS) militants have taken a hammer to an 8th-century Assyrian statue, bulldozed two statues of lions and blown up a 6th-century Byzantine mosaic just outside the city.

Ruins of Palmyra. Photo: UNESCO.

Ruins of Palmyra. Photo: UNESCO.

Rates of looting have also exploded in the past four years, with looters ranging from poor locals digging in the soil around their homes to rebel groups using bulldozers to scoop up mosaics from world heritage sites. “People are well aware of the treasures beneath the ground in Syria, and the speed at which they are digging them up is hugely concerning,” says Dr Amr al-Azm,associate professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee University.

In the border town of Tal Abyad, just north of Raqqa, a vast black market has taken root. “It is an industry,” says al-Azm. “International interlocutors go over the goods and decide what they want. Then they smuggle them over the border to Turkey where the dealers are.” A few individuals are growing rich, selling whatever they can find, from pottery fragments to mosaics and gold jewelry. So too are extremist groups, with funds going straight to groups like IS. As al-Azm points out, IS has even “legalised” looting within its areas of control through the notion of khums (the traditional Islamic obligation to contribute one fifth of income to charity) so long as a tax is paid on each item.

Archaeologists and anthropologists are increasingly concerned by the threat that looting and destruction pose to Syria’s identity. The welfare of ancient ruins may seem trivial in a war which has killed over 191,000 people, but it is not simply a case of protecting history. Serving as tangible links to a shared past, historical sites can help heal fractured political realities by building and sustaining a sense of national unity.

Indeed, discussions over cultural heritage have shown that some dialogue can occur. In April, an international conference was held in Spain to discuss heritage in situations of conflict and war. Both the director general of the Syrian Antiquities Authority and the head of antiquities for the opposition interim government were present. “After the conference, both men sat around the same table and agreed on the need to safeguard the country’s cultural heritage,” says Durham University’s Dr Emma Cunliffe, who helped organize the event. “Yes, it’s a small step. But think about what people have been achieving on the international stage — very little! Here, they sat down and agreed on something, proving that cultural heritage can serve as a common ground.”

There are growing efforts to help protect the country’s history. At the international level, groups such as the Syria Campaign have been calling for the UN to repeat its action in post-US invasion Iraq and issue a resolution to halt the illicit trade in antiquities. “Whilst a resolution won’t stop the trade on its own, it will help galvanize international efforts and send an important signal that this world heritage urgently needs protection,” explains James Sadri, campaign director at the Syria Campaign. “The response has been phenomenal. There’s a real tangible sense that the international political response has so far been inadequate.”

Many Syrians are also doing work on the ground — often at great risk. “With all this destruction, it’s so easy to say ‘Syrians just don’t care’,” says Cunliffe. “But many are working desperately to save their country’s cultural heritage”. Little known groups of activists, students and archeologists have acknowledged the real threats damage and destruction pose, and have begun documenting sites and initiating work to protect them from further damage, with some receiving training from the Syrian interim government’s Heritage Task Force in Turkey. At the mosaics museum in Maarat al-Nu’man outside Idlib (which holds magnificent mosaics from the collection of Byzantine towns known as the Dead Cities and has found itself on the front line), some Syrians have attempted to sandbag the mosaics to protect them from shelling. In Aleppo, efforts have been made to save what was left of the city’s grand Umayyad Mosque. Locals have dismantled and moved the 12th-century mihrab to safety; dragged stones from the fallen minaret to a safe site, so that it may one day be reconstructed; bricked up the shrine to Zachariah; and sandbagged, cemented and bricked up the 14th-century sundial.

“When they did this work, they had to hang up curtains to protect themselves from snipers,” explains Cunliffe. “But one of them was still shot. Fortunately, he survived, but it just shows the dangers these guys face as they attempt to complete their work.”

Not just a grand vestige of a bygone era, Syria’s cultural heritage is inherently bound up with society. Ancient Palmyra saw civilizations come and go inside its walls, but the industrial scale of destruction is now threatening the continued existence of such sites, along with chances for future social stability countrywide. As Heritage for Peace says, “monuments are about people, and it is with people that all discussions of heritage must start and end.” Saving Syria’s heritage is not just a nod to the past. It is about building the country’s future.

Emma Pearson is an editor at the Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine (FODIP), focussing on the impact of MENA-based conflict on the UK population.

Katie Welsford is a Middle East researcher for the Institute for Islamic Strategic Affairs (IISA), currently covering Syria and Iraq, and the rise of the ‘neo-jihadist’ movement.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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