Syrian Rich Cultural Treasures become Casualty: Of all of the costs of the bottomless conflict in Syria, the most tragic is the extraordinary loss of life that continues unabated. The death toll, largely civilians, is approaching 40,000.
Inside SyriaAlso a tragedy, are the lives upended — according to relief agencies, 400,000 Syrians have fled the country and another 2.5 million have been driven from their homes inside Syria. About 2.5 million Syrians, roughly 10 percent of the population, are in need of emergency aid, according to the United Nations.
But what is almost as distressing is the utter destruction to the country’s physical heritage, what was one of Syria’s greatest, untapped assets.
I felt fortunate to have visited many of Syria’s cultural attractions — remnants of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Byzantines and early Muslims, the Crusaders and Ottomans. I feel even more fortunate now.
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Unconfirmed reports — few foreign journalists have made it inside the country — tell a story of widespread devastation of much of the country’s most important heritage.
Fire has damaged or destroyed parts of Aleppo’s centuries-old, covered stone market, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where Syrian thyme, sweet tea and apple-flavoured tobacco smoke wafted timelessly through the air. The entrance to Aleppo’s citadel, the ruins of a magnificent castle on a hilltop, have been damaged. One of my favourite restaurants in the Middle East, Beit Sissi, in an elegant 17th century home in Aleppo’s “New City” is reported destroyed.
The crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers, considered by archaeologist and World War I guerrilla leader T.E. Lawrence to be the best-preserved in the world was reported shelled. The Greek ruins of Apamea are reportedly damaged and looted of its mosaics. The Byzantine dead cities, astonish preserved and hauntingly vacant stone villages mostly untouched since the advent of Islam, are also reported damaged.
Damascus, the cultural heart of Syria, has also seen damage, including to Bab Touma, or St. Thomas Gate, the ancient entrance to the city’s Christian Quarter, where a car bombing in October killed 13 people.
That was my home when I lived in Syria for 11 months in 2006 and ’07, studying Arabic and working as a journalist and blogger.
Then, Syria was considered among the safest countries in the world. During a security briefing at the U.S. Embassy at the start of my Fulbright fellowship, I asked if there were any areas to avoid. No, we were told, every neighbourhood in every city was considered safe.
The country’s iron-fisted authoritarian rulers have since largely lost their grip on the country, and it’s become clear they will do just about anything to stay in power. In a war of attrition, the country’s history is very much a part of the battlefield.
Syria has very little oil, not enough to export, and few other natural resources (one reason the West hasn’t intervened in the fighting). Among the country’s greatest treasures is its past. Its people are proud of their history. They live among the layers of civilization going back more than 2,000 years. Aleppo, in northern Syria, was an important stop on the ancient Silk Road, and Damascus is considered the longest continuously inhabited capital in the world.
But for all of the remnants of great civilizations, few visitors came to see them. And understandably. Syria for decades has been considered a pariah state in the West, its most recent allegiances including the Soviet Union and Iran. War in neighbouring Iraq, as well as continued instability of the region, made Syria less attractive. Finally, few Syrians speak English — great for a language student, but bad for tourism.
The potential for a new Syria lay partly in promoting its past. That will be much more difficult now.
Once the dust settles, we’ll know the extent of the damage to Syria’s heritage. Rebuilding homes and businesses will be a priority. But reconstructing Aleppo’s labyrinthine stone market, among other destroyed cultural treasures, should be a priority. Even still, that will be an imitation of the hand-hewn stones of another time.
Syria’s cities have been ransacked and pillaged many times through history. This latest round will no doubt be a devastating blow. And it isn’t over.