In Syria, much of the heaviest fighting between government forces and rebels seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad occurs on terrain with landmarks of immeasurable historical value . Videos and the global media report revolutionary brigades seeking shelter in medieval castles, flames destroying Aleppo’s shops dating back to medieval times (pictured above), and Syrian tanks taking positions among colonnades of Roman architecture.
More recently, journalists and archeologists have warned that networks of looters and smugglers are stealing mosaics and other valuable artifacts of Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, early Christian, Byzantine and Islamic civilizations from Syria’s national parks. They report that government and rebel fighters may be complicit in the theft of Syria’s patrimony.
Christian Sahner is a scholar of Syrian history who spent two years surveying the country’s historical sites before the war began. He now scours YouTube videos and Facebook photos to identify possible threats to these landmarks. Sahner works with the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH), founded, as its mission statement says, to protect and preserve the “great accomplishments of civilization.” Sahner spoke recently with senior reporter David Arnold about the impact of Syria’s civil war on the country’s man-made treasures, some dating back more than 5,000 years.
Arnold: What kind of damage to the archaeological heritage of Syria has occurred during the civil war?
Sahner: … what seems to be the case is there has been widespread destruction and looting of sites, particularly in rural areas and particularly in areas that are on the frontline of government and opposition forces. On the one hand, most major museums in big cities, especially in Damascus, seem to be okay. Museums inside of Damascus seem to be mostly okay. But it’s places like Aleppo, it’s places like the Dead Cities, which are the ruins of, basically, a late antique and Byzantine agricultural community. Those have been heavily damaged. And so, I would say that some places have been devastated and some parts are okay but the damage is very uneven and hard to assess, frankly.
Arnold: Does it sound like serious damage has been done?
Sahner: Absolutely. No question about it. And precisely because it is a civil war, is it a revolution, is it an armed insurgency – precisely because the legal definitions are so murky, it is difficult for conventional international organizations who could operate in this context to asses the damage… For example the Blue Shield, essentially the first responders to cultural patrimony in crisis, and even the Blue Shield has not been able to go into Syria.
“[W]hat you can say for certain is that the variety of cultures represented on the ground [in Syria] is far richer and wider than what you find in Egypt or in neighboring countries.” – Christian Sahner
Arnold: Can you tell me a little about the Blue Shield?
Sahner: The Blue Shield was set up by an international court in the 1940s and their headquarters are in Vienna. Typically, what they do is, if you are in a war zone, they will parachute in, so to speak, a very small team and try to document to the best of their ability the extent of the damage. The situation is volatile… they have not been able to go into Syria.
Sahner: Extremely important, when most people think cultural heritage in the Middle East, probably the pyramids come to mind but in many ways Syria’s historical patrimony is of equal if not greater richness than Egypt’s and what you can say for certain is that the variety of cultures represented on the ground is far richer and wider than what you find in Egypt or in neighboring countries.
Arnold: What is the variety of that culture?
Sahner: You have had human civilizations in Syria for five or six thousand years. There are Neolithic settlements, there are Babylonian settlements, there are Greek settlements, there are Roman settlements, there are early Christian and early Byzantine, and there are early Islamic and it just goes on and on. Basically, among the unique aspects of Syrian history, this part of the world has been witness to major tectonic shifts in human history, not just the history of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, but of all [history]. Syria is ground zero for this and these tectonic shifts have left incredible treasures on the ground.
“[Syria's Crac des Chevaliers] is the finest example of medieval castle architecture anywhere and it so happens that it is sitting in the foothills of a mountain range in Syria and not in the Loire Valley in France.” – Christian Sahner
This is human treasure and, of course, in principle, we need to protect it. But when it comes to Syria specifically, there are other reasons. A lot of people have been talking about how this conflict has become ‘sectarian,’ whatever that means. Religious communities inside the country have come into conflict with each other more openly than at any other time in recent history. A lot of these … minority communities have come under threat and probably in the long run will be leaving Syria. And this will be true of Christians, in particular, and many others. The archeological and historical heritage is a reminder that Syrian society is made up of many different parts. It is not a cultural monolith, it is not a historical monolith, it is not a religious monolith. But it is, in fact, a patchwork of many peoples and so, as the heritage on the ground goes, there goes a reminder that Syria is greater than its constituent parts.
Video about Syria’s Cultural Heritage (Courtesy – ARCH/Christian Sahner)
Sahner: In essence, it is the finest example of medieval castle architecture anywhere and it so happens that it is sitting in the foothills of a mountain range in Syria and not in the Loire Valley in France or some part of Italy. This is a piece of European heritage, it is a piece of Syrian heritage, it is witness to a very important moment in medieval history when Europe and the Middle East came in contact with each other. We often think about the bloody violence of that contact but it also brought about productive forms of cultural contact. Crac des Chevaliers today houses a mosque. The original chapel was converted into a mosque when it was taken in the 15th century.
“The Ummayid Mosque actually stands on a site of religious worship that dates back to antiquity.” – Christian Sahner
Arnold: What can you identify that is of importance to Islam?
Amateur video of Syrian forces purportedly shelling Apamea castle:
The Ummayad Mosque actually stands on a site of religious worship that dates back to antiquity. It was originally a Roman temple and with the coming of Christianity that Roman temple was converted into a Byzantine church that contained the head of John the Baptist, and then after the Islamic conquest of the 7th century the Byzantine church was converted into a mosque….
Listen to a fuller version of David Arnold’s interview with Christian Sahner:
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.