Saving Syria

Collapse of authority has led to widespread theft and looting

Published on 16 September 2012

Author(s): The Wall Street Journbal/CHRISTIAN C. SAHNER

Type:  Report originally published 20 August 2012

Roman temples, Crusader castles and medieval mosques have been subject to shelling, gunfire and military occupation

Many tragedies have followed the start of the Syrian uprising 18 months ago, but one that deserves more attention is the destruction of Syria's cultural patrimony. Throughout the country, Roman temples, Crusader castles and medieval mosques have been subject to shelling, gunfire and military occupation. What is more, the collapse of authority has led to widespread theft and looting. As Syria descends into bedlam, the international community must work to protect the country's historical sites, lest we see a repeat of the destruction of Iraq's landmarks after 2003.

The Crac des Chevaliers, a Crusader fortress of the 12th to 13th centuries, which overlooks the plains of Homs Getty Images.jpg

The Crac des Chevaliers, a Crusader fortress of the 12th to 13th centuries, which overlooks the plains of Homs.
Syria is the cradle of civilization, with a history of human settlement stretching back 5,000 years. Its cultures have left behind archaeological treasures of unmatched richness and beauty. They bear witness to the many peoples who have mixed across these lands through the centuries—Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads and Ottomans, among others—each contributing to the ethnic, religious and linguistic tableau that is modern Syria.

Even in the best of times, many of these monuments were lightly policed, especially in remote areas. But as war has engulfed the country, security resources normally allocated for protecting monuments have been redeployed to the battlefield. The fighting has drawn few distinctions between civilian and military targets, leaving many sites exposed to damage. There is plenty of blame to go around, as both government and opposition forces bear responsibility for the destruction and the collapse of security. Much of what we know about this comes from Syrians on the ground and their allies online, who post news and videos on websites such as Facebook and YouTube. A leading watchdog group is the Global Heritage Fund, which in May published an extensive report detailing the crisis.

Among the at-risk monuments is the Unesco World Heritage site Crac des Chevaliers, a Crusader fortress of the 12th to 13th centuries, which stands on a hilltop overlooking the plains of Homs. It is regarded as the finest example of medieval castle architecture anywhere in the world. According to reports, Crac was the site of peaceful antigovernment protests in March when it came under shelling. This led to damage to the outer walls, as well as the elegant Crusader chapel inside, which was converted into a mosque in 1271. Other reports indicate that it has served as a hub for foreign fighters who have entered Syria to battle the regime.

Then there is the ancient city of Palmyra, another Unesco World Heritage site, whose ruins lay scattered across a desert oasis 150 miles northeast of Damascus. Looting has been reported throughout the archaeological site, including in the Temple of Bel complex, the stately colonnaded avenue, the Camp of Diocletian, and the Valley of the Tombs.

Some of the most brazen destruction has occurred at the Roman city of Apamea, about 40 miles northwest of Hama. During recent months, Syrian army tanks have occupied the colonnaded street and shelled the 12th-century fortress of Qala'at al-Mudiq, which stands atop the old Roman acropolis. Plunderers have profited from the chaos, arriving in Apamea with heavy digging equipment and absconding with priceless Roman mosaics and column capitals. There is speculation that these kinds of looters are part of a wider network of criminals operating in the Middle East, who pillage archaeological sites on behalf of the black market.

Some of the worst-hit monuments lie in cities that have been the focus of sustained urban warfare. These include Dara'a in the far southwest, where the uprising began in March 2011; its 'Umari mosque— founded at the time of the Islamic conquests—has sustained heavy shelling. There is also Homs, the veritable center of the uprising, where countless mosques, churches and markets now stand in ruin. Most recently, the fighting has spread to Aleppo, where gunfire has engulfed the great medieval citadel in the center of town, which has served as a makeshift army base.

There are dozens of other examples of destruction throughout the country, not to mention instances of brazen theft from Syrian museums. This has prompted ominous comparisons to postinvasion Iraq, where the collapse of security led to much-publicized looting of the National Museum, along with ancient sites such as Babylon and Nineveh. With no end to the Syrian uprising in sight, what can be done to reverse the trend?

First, the media and nongovernmental organizations must publicize the damage and looting. Even if this does not help in the near-term in Syria, hopefully it will prepare the international community to protect its cultural patrimony more effectively in new conflicts down the road, as the experience in Iraq did for Libya since 2011. Second, we can strengthen legislation against the illegal antiquities trade, which tends to drive much of the looting in war zones. Third, the international community must exert pressure on both the Syrian regime and the opposition to ensure the safety of Syria's treasures. Finally, we must create plans to assess and safeguard sites once the regime falls, as seems inevitable. Tourism generated by Syria's cultural patrimony can play a crucial role in the country's postwar economic recovery if managed properly.

The Syrian uprising has caused untold human suffering since it began 18 months ago; at latest count, the death toll has surpassed 23,000. In light of this, one might rightly ask whether the protection of historical sites should be much of a priority, especially when more pressing problems require our attention.

Yet it is a priority. The Syrian revolution will one day end, leaving behind a country divided along sectarian, ethnic and regional lines. It will fall to Syria's new leaders to repair these divisions, to recover a sense of a united Syria that is stronger than its constituent parts. In this world, Syria's cultural patrimony can play a crucial role: as a reminder to the country of its diversity and achievements across the ages, as well as a symbol of pride and unity going forward.

Mr. Sahner is a doctoral candidate in history at Princeton University. He lived in Syria periodically between 2008 and 2010.

A version of this article appeared August 21, 2012, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Saving Syria.

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