Syrian war’s devastating toll on antiquities

Unesco places major national heritage sites on danger list as ground combat, air strikes and looting reduce ancient settlements to rubble



The damage to Syria’s cultural heritage is escalating steadily as the civil war in the country continues, according to Unesco, while the International Council of Museums has issued an emergency “red list” of the type of objects that should be treated with care, to discourage the trade in illicit Syrian antiquities. The list was to be launched at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on 25 September, as we went to press (see

“We are now getting reports of serious damage on an almost weekly basis,” says Veronique Dauge, the head of Unesco’s World Heritage Centre unit for the Arab States.

Last month, heavy fighting broke out in Maaloula, a Christian village 50km north of Damascus. It is one of the few places where a version of the ancient language of Aramaic is still used, and its monasteries include St Sergius, with a church dating back to the fourth century. The hillside village was occupied by rebel forces for two weeks before being retaken by Bashar al-Assad’s troops. The extent of the damage to its historic sites remains unclear.

The uncertainty over Maaloula’s fate reflects the problems of monitoring Syrian sites. Travel within the country is difficult and dangerous, so damage to heritage sites (particularly in remote areas) cannot be recorded by specialists.

Damage has mainly occurred during the crossfire between government and rebel forces. So far, there is little evidence of the deliberate targeting of historic sites. When an incident is publicised, each side invariably blames the other.

• Aleppo, Syria’s second most populated urban centre, has been the worst-hit. Dating back more than 7,000 years, it is among the world’s oldest continuously occupied cities. Fighting during the past year has devastated much of its historic centre. Jonathan Tubb, the British Museum’s keeper of the Middle East, describes the damage to the souk as “appalling”. He is also concerned about the citadel; its important archaeological remains include a Hittite temple.

The ancient minaret of Aleppo’s Great Umayyad Mosque was toppled last April. The 47m minaret, dating from 1092, was leaning at an angle, but it finally fell during fighting. It remains unclear which side in the civil war was responsible.

• Homs. In July, the mosque of Khalid Ben ibn al-Walid in Homs, central Syria, was shelled. Although the building is only a century old, it houses the seventh-century tomb of the Prophet’s companion, Ben ibn al-Walid, which was partially damaged. The Church of the Holy Belt has also suffered damage.

• Crac des Chevaliers. This 12th-century Crusader castle dominates a hill in western Syria. In July, its walls were hit during an air strike.

• Palmyra. At one of Syria’s most important ancient sites, part of a colonnaded street was destroyed by the digging of a military trench. The Arab citadel, the temple of Bel and the triumphal arch have been damaged.

Unesco is closely monitoring the situation, and in June, it placed all six of Syria’s World Heritage Sites on its “in danger” list. These are the ancient city of Damascus, the Roman site of Bosra, the early oasis settlement of Palmyra, the ancient city of Aleppo, the castles of Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah Ed-Din (Fortress of Saladin), and the ancient villages (or so-called Dead Cities) of north-west Syria.

• Museums: Museum collections have survived relatively well. All museums closed last year, and items on display were evacuated to secure stores. Youssef Kanjou, the director of the national museum in Aleppo, confirms that its collection has been removed to an underground store. Large objects remaining in the galleries have been sandbagged and are secure, although windows and display cases have been shattered.

Meanwhile, a museum in Deir ez-Zor, which opened in 1996 with German assistance, was hit by mortar shells in July. However, the museum’s collection is also safely in store.

The only two confirmed thefts of major objects from museums are a gilt bronze Aramaean statue from Hama Museum and a marble statue from Apamea Museum. Six boxes containing hundreds of antiquities were stolen from Raqqa Museum last year: some were recovered in July.

Illegal digging

What may turn out to be the worst damage is the result of illegal digging on archaeological sites. “Where the guns do not reach, the shovels will dig,” says Nicolas Saad from Syria’s Office of International Thefts.

Ebla Serious looting has occurred at this Bronze Age site. The department of antiquities reported in July that a gang had used heavy machinery in its search for treasures. This led to a collapse of earth, which killed two men.

Apamea This Hellenistic and Roman city, with an impressive colonnade of pillars, has been extensively dug. The archaeologist Frances Pinnock, who has worked in the region, describes the situation at Apamea as a “disaster”. The looted area is now bigger than the official excavations.

Dead Cities The situation in these scattered early Christian settlements remains unclear, partly because many are in isolated areas. Kafr Oqab has probably been the worst affected, with deep pits being dug in unexcavated cemeteries. The southern tower of its church has been knocked down and the nave excavated.

Dura Europos This site near the Iraqi border has been hit by looters using heavy machinery. More than 300 pits have been dug.

Emma Cunliffe, an archaeologist at Durham University who is monitoring Syrian sites, describes the situation as “attrition”, with further damage occurring as the months pass by. “Cumulatively, it is devastating,” she says.