News / Middle East

Syria Civil War Threatens Cradle of World Cultures

Tanks, looters prey on treasures of past civilizations of Macedonia, Rome and the Byzantine Empire and roots of Islam, Christianity and Judaism

Mile-long remnants of Syria's colonnade of Roman city of Apamea, photographed before war began. The site was reportedly shelled and occupied recently by Syrian government tanks. (Christian Sahner) Mile-long remnants of Syria's colonnade of Roman city of Apamea, photographed before war began. The site was reportedly shelled and occupied recently by Syrian government tanks. (Christian Sahner)
x
Mile-long remnants of Syria's colonnade of Roman city of Apamea, photographed before war began. The site was reportedly shelled and occupied recently by Syrian government tanks. (Christian Sahner)
Mile-long remnants of Syria's colonnade of Roman city of Apamea, photographed before war began. The site was reportedly shelled and occupied recently by Syrian government tanks. (Christian Sahner)
David Arnold
The civil war in Syria has resulted in the deaths of more than 90,000 people and forced an estimated three million to flee their homes. Now, experts fear the fighting also is destroying cultural artifacts and archeological sites on an unprecedented scale.
 
With limited access because of the fighting, archaeologists and experts on Syrian culture try to monitor thousands of important sites representing between 5,000 to 6,000 years of civilization.
 
Just this past week, Irina Bokova, the UNESCO director-general, noted that the destruction had been especially devastating in and around the northern city of Aleppo.
 
“After the damages on the Citadel and the burning of the souks, and previous damage to the Great Mosque last October, it has been reported that considerable destruction has taken place at the Mosque on Thursday 28 February,” Bokova said, adding that it had turned “this place of peace and study, one of the most beautiful mosques of all Islamic culture, into a devastated battlefield, notably its museum and library of manuscripts.” 

... whoever launches a stone against Syria is like launching a stone against one’s own mother, because we are the cradle of civilization
At a conference on U.S. aid for Syria last week, the political opposition’s chairman, Moaz Al-Khatib, said that  as the civil war rages on, “…our great cities, historical cities, are being destroyed, and whoever launches a stone against Syria is like launching a stone against one’s own mother, because we are the cradle of civilization.”

A cradle rocked by war

In the chaos of the current fighting, about two million Syrians driven from their homes are reported living among archeological ruins called the Dead Cities.

“One the saddest things is that you have families who have moved back into the caves, the tombs and the underground temples” said Emma Cunliffe, an archeologist at the University of Durham in England.
 
Before the civil war started, Cunliffe was able to survey many of the nation’s cultural treasures on site. Now she does her research on You Tube and the Internet. She recently learned that families have sought refuge in Serjilla and several other ancient settlements abandoned sometime after the fifth century A.D.
 
  • Defected Syrian policeman Adnan al-Hamod lights a kerosene lamp inside an underground shelter he made to protect his family from Syrian government shelling and airstrikes, Jirjanaz village, Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 28, 2013.
  • Nihal, 9, puts olive tree branches inside a wooden stove at an underground Roman tomb which her family uses for shelter, Jabal al-Zaweya, Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 28, 2013.
  • Nadia, 53, steps out of an underground Roman tomb used as shelter from shelling and airstrikes, Jabal al-Zaweya, Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 28, 2013.
  • Sami, 32, steps into an underground Roman tomb used for shelter from Syrian government shelling and airstrikes, Jabal al-Zaweya, Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 28, 2013.
  • A Free Syrian Army fighter, Abu Mohammed, speaks inside a cave used for shelter from Syrian government shelling and airstrikes, Jabal al-Zaweya, Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 28, 2013.
  • Syrian children walk out of an underground tunnel that their father made with a jackhammer for shelter from Syrian government forces shelling and airstrikes, Jirjanaz village, Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 28, 2013.
  • Sobhi al-Hamod, 60, stands inside an underground shelter he made using a jackhammer to protect his family from Syrian government forces shelling and airstrikes, Jirjanaz, Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 28, 2013.
  • Nihal, 9, looks at the entrance of an underground Roman tomb used as shelter from Syrian government shelling and airstrikes, Jabal al-Zaweya, Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 28, 2013.

The Associated Press recently reported similar efforts by other Syrians to escape the snipers and daily bombing of the villages of Jirjana and Jebel Al-Zaweya in the hills near Idlib. To avoid large-scale killings last December, dozens of residents began hiding in Roman tombs and other ruins.
 
Threatened heritage sites in Syria
 
Serjilla is one of the best-preserved of more than 600 villages in northern Syria known as the Dead Cities. Forty villages have been designated as an archeological park. The recently re-occupied houses are one- and two-story stone structures, mostly without window coverings or roofs. “But it’s best that they can get in from the snowy windswept hillsides,” Cunliffe said. 
 
The Crac is the finest example of medieval castle architecture anywhere in the world
The Dead Cities are one of six World Heritage Sites in Syria designated by UNESCO. Two other sites mark the meeting of East and West: the ruins of the Roman city of Palmyra, where until a few months ago you could walk between two rows of majestic columns on a major avenue; and the Crac des Chevaliers, headquarters for Richard the Lion-hearted, and the Qal’at Salah El-Din, a chapel converted to a mosque in 1217.
 
“The Crac is the finest example of medieval castle architecture anywhere in the world,” said Christian Sahner, a scholar at Princeton University. “And it just hapopens that it’s sitting on a hill overlooking the plain of Homs, not in the Loire Valley in France, or in Italy.”
 
And the Great Mosque of Umayyad in Damascus - an early church and one of Islam’s oldest places of worship - once contained the head of John the Baptist and now contains the tomb of Saladin, the defender of Islam during the crusades.
 
In terms of the sites important to religions, few countries can match Syria. Cunliffe lists the landmarks: Before the latest fighting, Christians traveling on the road to Damascus could visit the church where Paul stayed after his conversion. Muslims could worship in a mosque in Homs where companions of the Prophet Mohammed stayed. And Jews could climb the hill overlooking Aleppo where Abraham once tended his sheep.
 
Alexander the Great’s Macedonian lieutenants built vast cities in Palmyra and Apamea. Roman ruins dot the Syrian landscape.
 
Three more UNESCO heritage sites are the entire cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Bosra. Bosra is now a small town of several thousand residents, many living in the extensive ruins of a major Roman trading center first mentioned in the letters of an Egyptian pharaoh in the 14th century BC.
 
War threatens Syria’s past
 
A Syrian government official denies that looting has occurred in the government’s 36 major museums, but theft from remote sites is of great concern.  The head of Syria’s antiquities directorate, Maamoun Abdulkarim, told the Jordan Times looters are digging for artifacts in broad daylight.

Sahner, who spent parts of two years in Syria before the war, reported in the Wall Street Journal that looting has occurred across Palmyra’s Valley of Tombs and other ruins scattered across a desert oasis. He said Syrian army tanks recently occupied Apamea’s colonnaded street and shelled the 12th-century fortress of Qala'at al-Mudiq, which stands atop the old Roman acropolis.
 
The rebels need weapons, and antiquities are an easy way to buy them
But academic researchers caution that verifying claims of destruction during a war is often difficult.

“Some of these reports may have been forged for propaganda purposes,” Cunliffe adds. When the Vatican protested following reports of a fire in the Syrian-Catholic diocese offices in Aleppo, photographs later proved the report false.

But the international police organization, Interpol, reports there is solid evidence that looted Syrian artifacts are moving through a thriving network of black market dealers operating much as they did selling artifacts from Afghanistan and Iraq. Interpol has begun posting descriptions of looted Syrian mosaics on the Internet.
 
Some of the artifacts apparently are being put on sale by Syrian rebels.

“Some days we are fighters. Others we are archeologists,”  27-year-old rebel Jihad Abu Saoud from Idlib told the Jordan Times. Saoud acknowledges he had uncovered Bronze Age tablets containing Sumerian script.

“The rebels need weapons, and antiquities are an easy way to buy them,” one buyer told the newspaper.

You May Like

Photogallery South Africa Bans Travelers From Ebola-stricken Countries

South Africans returning from affected West African countries will be thoroughly screened, required to fill out medical questionnaire, health minister says More

Multimedia UN Launches ‘Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years’ in Iraq

Move aims to help thousands of Iraqi religious minorities who fled their homes as Kurdish, Iraqi government forces battle Sunni insurgents More

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

IT specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about disease More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbasi
X
Scott Stearns
August 21, 2014 9:20 PM
The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls for Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid