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Citadel of Aleppo, Copyright: picture alliance/Bildagentur Huber pixel
Citadel of Aleppo, Copyright: picture alliance/Bildagentur Huber pixelImage: picture alliance/Bildagentur Huber pixel

Syria's cultural casualties

Elizabeth Grenier
September 4, 2013

While the humanitarian situation in Syria remains grave, the conflict also means hundreds of priceless cultural treasures may be destroyed, if they aren't already. UNESCO is stepping up the pace to prevent more damage.


With the uncertainty surrounding the international community's involvement in the Syrian war and the unbearable number of casualties caused by the conflict, discussing material losses may seem like a lesser priority.

But the rich cultural heritage being destroyed in the country is nevertheless important to the whole of humanity. As Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, emphasized in her appeal last week, paying attention to this aspect of the conflict does not mean overlooking the humanitarian tragedy. The destruction of this heritage is a "part of the humanitarian disaster in Syria," she said.

Bombs, guns and thieves

Joined in Russia, Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO's Assistant Director General for Culture, is deeply concerned by the effects of the conflict on Syria's historical sites. "The situation is catastrophic, much worse than one can imagine," he told DW.

There are three different types of damage affecting Syria's cultural heritage. For one, the armed conflicts have damaged ancient cities and sites. Historical structures have been destroyed, particularly in cities like Aleppo and Homs. The souks which burned down last year in Aleppo had served as a meeting point for international merchants for the last 4,000 years.

Historical Aleppo is one of Syria's six UNESCO World Heritage sites. Others include the old cities of Damascus and Bosra, ancient villages of Northern Syria, the Crusade-period castle Crac des Chevaliers, and the fortifications of Qal'at Salah El-Din, as well as the monumental ruins in the oasis of Palmyra. These sites have been affected by the civil war and were recently added to UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger.

A second type of loss comes from thefts in museums. Major antiquities have been stolen from at least six museums. Fortunately, the 77,000 artefacts which make up the collections in Syria's archeological museums are now stored in a secure location.

Palmyra, one of Syria's architectural landmarks, Copyright: Fotolia/waj
Archeological sites at Palmyra, one of Syria's architectural landmarks, have already been lootedImage: Fotolia/waj

Illicit digs and organized crime

Finally, archeological sites are being devastated by illicit excavations. According to Bandarin, this is the worst problem. "If you destroy the minaret of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, it's a catastrophe, but it is still possible to rebuild it one day, whereas when people just come and take objects, you will never get them back," he explained.

Karin Bartl was directing the excavation missions for the German Archeological Institute in Damascus. She told DW that all German Archeological Institute researchers in Syria were relocated as soon as turmoil began in the country, at the beginning of 2011. For the last two years, all foreign archeological field research has come to a halt.

Now based in Jordan, she collects information about the situation from Syrian colleagues and the Internet. "To our knowledge, the German Archeological Institute excavation sites have not been affected by looting, but a massive destruction of Syria's cultural heritage is definitely taking place," she told DW in an email interview.

Along with other international representatives of archeological missions, Bartl also collaborated with UNESCO by pointing out which objects were at risk of being looted. Indeed, major archeological sites in Syria have been ransacked.

Satellite images of the ruins of Apamea taken before and during the war offer a striking comparison: The site looks like it's been bombed, yet all the holes come from illegal digging.

The Syrian government launched a media campaign called Syria My Homeland to incite the local population to protect its archaeological sites. But, as Francesco Bandarin explains, "This is not done by peasants living in the area - it's not a spontaneous thing. This is organized crime with a chain of command. The market for illicit traffic of cultural objects is huge. We are not on equal ground; we are very weak."

The crime circles can't be stopped, conceded Bandarin, adding, "But this does not mean we shouldn't try."

Political neutrality for culture's sake

UNESCO has developed a plan of action to prevent further damage, although the conflict hinders missions in the country. "The key point is that we need to change speed, even though it is very difficult to operate in Syria," Bandarin said.

In its appeal to the parties involved in the conflict, the UN organization refers to international treaties such as the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict adopted in 1954, which was also signed by Syria.

Even though such agreements are easily forgotten in the heat of a conflict, in this case, both the government and the rebels have shown openness when it comes to preventing the disappearance of their cultural treasures. The Director General of Antiquities and Museums, Maamoun Abdulkarim, who cooperates with UNESCO and provides regular reports on the situation, has "called for a neutral action required for the sake of culture and requested politically neutral support," as stated in a report addressing the issue of illicit trafficking in Syria.

According to Bandarin, the government has allowed Abdulkarim to deal with the rebels on the issue of heritage conservation. He appoints people to guard cultural treasures in rebel-controlled areas and, apparently, the rebels accept their authority.

Nevertheless, these attempts to watch over the sites are sometimes stalled by technical issues. For instance, due to the situation in the country, international missions were unable to transfer funds to pay guards for their work at excavation sites. It is also impracticable to provide constant surveillance for all of the 10,000 archaeological sites in the country.

Worthwhile drops in the ocean

Other UNESCO actions involve identifying the artifacts which could be circulating on the black market and collaborating with different international partners, including INTERPOL and the police and custom services of neighboring countries. Similar monitoring and training measures were also applied in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Libya.

Thanks to these interventions, some Syrian artifacts have already been found and returned. Such successes, however small, encourage UNESCO to pursue its work in the region. "We are not fixing the situation. On the contrary, these are drops in the ocean. But it is necessary to do it," said Bandarin.

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