The loss of human lives and the displacement of people are the major consequences of any war and the present conflict in Syria is no exception.
Since ancient times, Syria always was on the crossroads of civilizations fighting for a better life or of kings wanting to expand their territory out of need, ambition or greed. Whatever the reason, Syria was caught in the middle. But there are enough sources that tell us about that facet. I personally want to draw your attention to the loss of Syria’s heritage due to the looting and robbing of their historical treasures that have come to us over thousands of years.
Cities like Damascus, Aleppo or Homs make the headlines on a regular base, but most vulnerable are the small towns in remote areas of Syria’s vast desert because they are the easiest places for the treasure hunters. These places may or may not fall within my immediate field of interest around Alexander and Hellenism, but they are not less precious to humanity.
The main problem for these remote places is in the fact that in the years just before the outbreak of the war, the Syrian government had built 25 cultural museums all over the country in order to encourage tourism and to keep the local artifacts on the site. Yet the theft of entire ancient cities deprives future generations of their birthright and their true origins. Let’s not forget that Damascus and Aleppo are among the oldest cities in the world – how much of this heritage will reach future generations?
During my visit to Syria a few years ago, I have been confronted with many smaller ancient cities that truly stood out, either in the middle of the widespread desert or in key positions along the banks of the Euphrates River as opposed to the larger cities which are strung along the western border of the country, the most fertile part, of course.
One of the places I saw was, for instance, the magnificent Crusaders’ castle of Crac des Chevaliers which Lawrence of Arabia described as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world”, which has now been shelled, damaging the inside chapel. There were the so-called “Dead Cities”, i.e. hundreds of abandoned Byzantine towns littering the landscape of Northwestern Syria, which have suffered in the recent years from pitched battles as there is no official authority to protect them. This is the area of the San Simeon’s monastery, where this saint is said to have spent forty years of his life on top a column. Even the unique Monastery of Sednaya founded by nobody less than Emperor Justinian and where I was treated to prayers in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, has been damaged by shellfire, damaging its oldest section dating from 574. What is beyond my comprehension is that even the Syrians’ own mosques have not been spared. The mosque of Deera, one of the oldest Islamic structures in Syria has been damaged, and the minaret of the Great Mosque in Aleppo has been blasted recently without any consideration.
I hear that in many cases armed rebels sought refuge behind the strong walls of ancient castles but were preceded by the Syrian military who did not hesitate to blast away parts of these historical buildings. The same military is reported to have dug deep trenches inside Roman ruins also.
Some splendid Roman mosaics of Apamea have been attacked by looters using bulldozers to rip up the Roman floors to take them away. They even managed to take two giant capitals from atop the columns lining up along the Decumanus, the impressive east-west road of Apamea. According to an article in the Mainzer Beobachter of 29 April 2013, the situation is even worse and they publish aerial photographs of the site taken in Summer 2011 as compared to a more recent one taken in Winter 2013. Note the countless pits dug by treasure seekers and looters.
Even southern Bosra, home of one of the best-preserved Roman theatres in the world, has not escaped the destruction of several ancient buildings. Several museums, local or not, have been looted, from Homs, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Maarat al-Numan to Qalaar Jaabar. In Homs, the old churches, houses, and streets no longer exist according to archaeological reports. Items from the Aleppo Museum have been transferred to the vaults of the central bank in Damascus, it seems, but that is far from enough. And then, there is the great site of Palmyra, entirely unprotected. Reuters reports that the army has positioned themselves in the museum located between the town and the Roman ruins. They mention that soldiers are camping now in the luxury hotels that once were popular with the tourists and they also positioned snipers behind the old walls of the Roman theatre.
Frightening and terrifying prospects for Syria’s rich and old history. We have seen what happened in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Syria probably will not fare any better – unfortunately.