March 2013 will mark the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising, which has proven to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Arab Spring. While the media rightly focuses on the country’s humanitarian crisis, it is not the only tragedy facing Syria. There is also the largely unpublicized danger facing Syria’s cultural heritage.
Over 12 museums have been looted; all six of the UNESCO World Heritage sites have been damaged; historical sites, including Bosra, Krak des Chevaliers, Palmyra, Apamea, have been destroyed while surrounding areas have become a stage for war.
Aleppo’s medieval Citadel, Great Mosque and the Ottoman Souq have all become a battlefield.
Syria’s heritage becomes prey
The chaos has resulted in considerable damage, destruction, looting and illicit trade to Syria’s heritage, robbing us of our identity and causing more hatred and division.
Syria is a cradle of civilizations, with a history of human settlement stretching back 5,000 years, during which Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads and Ottomans have lived.
Mark Twain once wrote about Syria’s capital: “Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies. Though another claims the name, old Damascus is by right, the eternal City.”
Under exceptionally harsh conditions, escalating violence and deteriorating security, Syria’s heritage now stands in the thick of fighting and has become prey to looters. However, reliable and complete documentation of this destruction is almost impossible to find because of the difficulties international agencies face in entering the country. Still, in the midst of all this, we must find ways to take immediate protective action to minimize the damage to any extent possible.
There are international initiatives, which are investigating the dangers facing Syria’s heritage, such as those launched by UNESCO, the Blue Shield and others. Still, there should be more awareness on the issue.
In general, the more organizations collaborate to find solutions, the wider the positive impact will be. In parallel, the media must play a more forceful role through sustained coverage and awareness of destruction.
One of the organizations with which I am working with to address these issues is ARCH International, a Washington-based NGO concerned with the protection of cultural patrimony in conflict zones. Our project is called the “The Working Group to Protect Syrian Heritage in Crisis.”
The organization’s mission statement clarifies that the NGO is politically neutral and committed to working with all parties in the interest of safeguarding the country’s historic treasures.
As Dr. Cheryl Benard, president and co-founder of ARCH International, commented, “Since the two European World Wars, a number of international methods and conventions have been developed to try to protect historic sites, important monuments and cultural treasures from damage during war. But there are two problems with these efforts: first, they are very European in their logic, and do not necessarily resonate in situations in which deep religious, ethnic or tribal differences are fueling conflict. Second, they were designed for situations of conventional warfare, while today we are often dealing with asymmetric conflicts, sectarian conflicts and conflicts involving militias and armed opposition groups. The challenge is to develop new approaches for these new, non-European situations.”
“We can strengthen legislation against the illegal antiquities trade, which tends to drive much of the looting in war zones. The international community must also exert pressure on both the Syrian government and the opposition to ensure the safety of Syria's treasures. Finally, we must create plans to assess and safeguard sites whenever the regime falls,” Christian Sahner, a professor on the Middle East at Princeton University and member of the “Working Group.”
"Syria's ancient and medieval monuments are not just piles of rock and wood. They are the remnants of thousands of years of creativity and diversity in the country. Damage to Syria's monuments is damage to the identity of Syria itself."
With over 70,000 dead, one million refugees, 3.5 million displaced and countless cities and provinces crippled by fighting and hunger, all that is left for us Syrians is our history. Our history is the foundation of our diversity, culture and economy. Indeed, Syria’s history plays a crucial role for us, whether socially, financially or politically. But without our past we have no future.
Honey Al-Sayed is an award winning radio host and producer. Ms. Al-Sayed is the co-founder of Radio SouriaLi, grassroots non-profit online radio station where she serves as Board member, radio host and producer. She is also Board member of RO’YA, based in Paris and both RO’YA and SouriaLi are dedicated to working on Syrian people’s psychosocial development via education, media, art & culture. Ms. Al-Sayed is on the Advisory Board of the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH) representing Syria. She is the recipient of the Lebanese-American University Alumni Achievement Award, influential Media Figure and Role Model in Promoting a Better Future in Syria. Twitter @HoneySayed