A Rich Past with a Bleak Future: A Look at How Syria's Cultural Heritage Is Being Destroyed
By Zulaikha “Zelo” Safi
Often referred to as the “cradle of civilization,” Syria is home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world dating back to circa 18,000 – 12,000 BC. Its rich and diverse history spans centuries and has led to the creation of magnificent ancient and religious monuments and buildings all over the country. Sadly, Syria’s rich cultural heritage has fallen victim to the country’s ongoing conflict since the outset of the current civil war which began in 2011, with many of its archeological and historic sites suffering irreparable damage.
Image 1: Before – the Old City of Aleppo in 2009. Source: Reuters
Image 2: After – the Old City of Aleppo in 2016. Source: Reuters
Cultural heritage is typically understood to consist of monuments related to culture such as museums, religious buildings, and ancient structures and sites. The massive destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage in the past several years has been astonishing. Evidence shows that all six of Syria’s World Heritage Sites have suffered significant damages and as a result, all six have been put on UNESCO’s list of endangered World Heritage Sites. The worst-hit in the country’s civil war is the Ancient City of Aleppo (also known as the “Old City”). One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and the largest city in Syria, Aleppo is located at the crossroads of several trade routes from the 2nd millennium BC and the architectural remains of the city’s rich and diverse history can be found all over Aleppo’s Old City. Unfortunately, since the Battle of Aleppo in 2012, Aleppo has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the civil war as government and opposition forces clash in and around the city. Once renowned for its famous ancient sites, Aleppo’s Old City has now become virtually unrecognizable as a result of the ongoing conflict (see Images 1 and 2 above for before and after photos). The monumental Citadel of Aleppo, which is in the center of the Old City and is considered one of the oldest and largest castles in the world, used to be one of Syria’s major tourist attractions. As a result of the ongoing conflict however, the Citadel has suffered significant damages (see Images 3 and 4 below for before and after photos of the Citadel).
Image 3: Before – Inside the Citadel of Aleppo in 2009. Source: Reuters
Image 4: After – Inside the Citadel of Aleppo in 2014. Source: Reuters
Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque has also suffered devastating damages during the ongoing conflict. Described by UNESCO as "one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world,” the grand Umayyad Mosque was built between the 8th and 13th centuries and is purported to be home to the remains of John the Baptist's father. As evident by the before and after photos below (see Images 5 and 6), the Umayyad Mosque has been seriously destroyed in recent years, along with its 11th-century minaret which has been completely brought down to a pile of rubbles.
Image 5: Before – the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo in 2010. Source: Reuters
Image 6: After – the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo in 2013. Source: Reuters
The latest threats to Syria’s cultural heritage come from the extremist group ISIS. When ISIS seized control of the ancient City of Palmyra in May of 2015, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, the world held its breath in horror wondering if ISIS would destroy such a majestic archeological site. The City of Palmyra is considered one of the ancient world’s most important cultural centers. The world didn’t have to wait too long to witness ISIS’ next moves, when soon after taking over the ancient site, ISIS deliberately blew up the Temple of Baalshamin, which was built nearly 2,000 years ago and was one of the best-preserved at the site. ISIS also destroyed the temple of Bel, which is considered by UNESCO as one of the most important religious buildings of the 1st Century AD in the East (see images 7 and 8 for before and after photos). The iconic monumental arch know as the Arch of Triumph, a nearly 2,000 year old architectural site that stood at the entrance to the Palmyra’s Colonnade, was also blown up by ISIS (see Images 9 and 10). A few months later, ISIS publicly executed Khaled al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist who for decades oversaw excavations at the site, for refusing to reveal the location of archaeological treasures.
Image 7: Before – the Temple of Bel in 2010. Source: Reuters
Image 8: After – all that remains of the Temple of Bel in 2016. Source: Reuters
Image 9: Before – the Arch of Triumph (date unknown). Source: Reuters
Image 10: After – the Arch of Triumph today. Source: Reuters
Syria’s cultural heritage is not the only country to fall victim to ISIS’ deliberate and systematic destruction of historic buildings, archeological sites, and artifacts – it’s happening all over Iraq and in Libya as well. It echoes the tactics used by the Taliban in Afghanistan and brings to mind the 2001 demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, a pair of colossal ancient Buddhist statues in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan which were celebrated as one of the largest of its kind and whose complete destruction is one of the most horrific tragedies in archeological history. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described such deliberate destruction of cultural heritage as a “war crime” and “an attack on humanity as a whole.” That has had no effect on ISIS, whose motivations to bulldoze through Syria’s cultural heritage are for religious, political, and practical purposes. They have cited idol worshipping as justifying their actions, but it also serves as a way for ISIS to shock the world and get attention as they defy outcries from the international community and show that no one can stop them in their destructive path, while also spreading fear among the local communities. ISIS also profits from the illicit trade of antiquities as they smuggle artifacts to help finance their activities.
Although experts have not been able to enter Syria to assess the exact extent of damage done to the country’s cultural heritage since conflicts began in 2011, the growing and irreversible destruction of the country’s cultural heritage is undeniable and absolutely devastating for the people of Syria. The immediate outlook of Syria’s cultural heritage remains bleak, but why should anyone care? Because preserving and protecting what’s left of Syria’s cultural heritage is crucial more than ever during this time of war and conflict, as it will help reconnect the broken communities of Syria once the conflict is over and help the Syrian people reestablish their identity and build a sense of belonging by connecting their past to their present and future. As one expert on Syria’s cultural heritage explains, “Once the current violence ends, the people of Syria will need to find ways to reconnect with symbols that once united them across religious and political lines. The country’s ancient past, represented in its rich cultural heritage, is key to this. Protecting and preserving Syria’s history and heritage is thus also about safeguarding its future.”
 A World Heritage Site is a landmark which has been officially recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Sites are selected on the basis of having cultural, historical, scientific or some other form of significance. Syria has six World Heritage Sites: the Ancient City of Aleppo, the Ancient City of Bosra, the Ancient City of Damascus, the Ancient Site of Palmyra, the Ancient Cities of Northern Syria, and Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din.
Zulaikha Safi, who goes by “Zelo” (pronounced like jello, as she often adds after introducing herself), is an attorney who is passionate about raising awareness about the importance of protecting cultural heritages around the world. In her free time she enjoys uncovering new foodie finds, listening to podcasts, exploring creative outlets, discovering new music, and learning not to fall during yoga classes.