Syria’s Heritage at Risk

One of the recurring headlines of the war in Syria details the destruction of its precious cultural artefacts. It has become a truism of sorts that when locations are struck by artillery and mortar fire, it isn’t just human bodies and communities being destroyed but human heritage, as well. Ancient architecture is being stress-tested in ways that its designers and builders are unlikely to have foreseen. Only two weeks ago UNESCO head Irina Bokova decried damage done to the Crac des Chevaliers and the Qal’at Salah El-Din, both “outstanding examples” of the “region’s fortified architecture”. The sites were among six being placed on a UN List of World Heritage in Danger, alongside “The Ancient City of Damascus”; “Site of Palmyra”; “Ancient City of Bosra”; “Ancient City of Aleppo”; and “Ancient Villages of northern Syria”.

That Syria’s architectural and archeological treasures were at extreme risk of war damage is certainly newsworthy, but it is not new. Stories of similar abuses and losses have been filtering out of the region since the fighting began two years ago. One of the most striking of these emerged only days ago, recounting the organised looting of historic sites including that of an ancient Hellenic city, Apamea, located about 55km northwest of Hama and thought to have been founded around 300 B.C. A Bloomberg headline read “Syrian Looters In Bulldozers Seek Treasure Amid Chaos.” An excellent  research project at the University of Glasgow entitled “Trafficking Culture” (traffickingculture.org) provides incredible satellite images of the Apamea site at the beginning of the conflict – flat, unspoiled, uncratered – and later images showing a wildly perforated vista – a “moonscape blighted by hundreds  upon hundreds of holes” – where, one assumes, not a single artefact of value has been left behind.

If the litany of cultural destruction seems wanton, extreme, and depressing, consider that Syria is only the most recent example of it. Early this year, reports from Mali were that Al Qaeda and affiliated extremists who had occupied parts of the country were destroying rare, priceless manuscripts and other artefacts in Timbuktu and Bamako. Extremists fleeing the former in the face of advancing French  troops made sure to set alight a library before leaving. Such scenes recall previous instances of at-risk heritage suffering the vicissitudes of war and instability. In 2003, during the US invasion of Iraq, looters had their way with the country’s National Museum in Baghdad. In 2001 the Taliban dynamited two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. In 1992, during the siege of Sarajevo, Serbian artillery gunners shelled the city’s Ottoman-era national library into oblivion.

Sometimes, recovering these treasures is simply impossible. In Sarajevo, the flames that engulfed the library ate over 1.5 million volumes and 150,000 rare books and manuscripts, most of them unique and irreplaceable. The Buddhas of Bamiyan are gone forever; rubble, tourist photographs and the empty spaces they once occupied the only evidence that they even existed at all. In Mali, reports of burning libraries and destroyed manuscripts are matched by encouraging tales of rescue and preservation, of efforts taken to dupe the extremists and hide the country’s priceless legacy. Conditions in Syria seem  less hopeful, the damage of such a scale and so pervasive that it is difficult to imagine what postconflict recovery might look like. But we can hope, and we can imagine, and we can go even further than that: we can observe, and record, and plan, and eventually rebuild.

Originally published in Current Intelligence 5:3 (Summer 2013), p. 34.

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