Syrian rebel walks in burnt section of the Umayyad Mosque in the old city of Aleppo last year. Ancient building has suffered enormous damage from fighting. AFP photo/Mustafa Tauseef/Getty Images
When so many people are dying, who cares about piles of stones?
In Syria, where close to 100,000 have perished in a savage civil war, that’s fair comment. But the World Heritage Committee that advises the UN’s cultural organization UNESCO has put six Syrian world heritage sites on its endangered list in the hope that somebody may be listening in time to save them.
Wars aren’t only declared on people, but on their past. The remains of the past ground societies and preserve living memory through the centuries. Syria’s ancient history also belongs to the collective memory of the world. Here’s what’s at stake:
Ancient city of Damascus: ruins date back to 10,000 BC, possibly the oldest city in the world. Believed to be the original Garden of Eden, it was the temporary home of Abraham and a site visited by Christ. In its heyday in the eighth century, it was the centre of an Arab empire, famous for its magnificent Great Mosque and rich arts and crafts. Its National Museum had more than 70,000 artifacts.
Site of Palmyra: dating back to at least 2,000 BC, city was founded by a general of Alexander the Great. A wealthy Silk Route caravan centre, it was invaded by the Romans but freed by the emperor Hadrian in 129 AD. Most famously it was ruled by the warrior queen Zenobia, who extended her empire across the Middle East in the third century. After her defeat by the Romans, Palmyra was largely abandoned, then devastated by an earthquake.
Ancient city of Bosra: once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia, it was mentioned as early as the 14th century BC. Its artifacts include Nabatean, Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad buildings. Said to have been visited by the Prophet Mohammed, it was a religious metropolis for both Islam and Christianity.
Ancient city of Aleppo: devastated by the current civil war, it’s at the crossroads of several trade routes dating from the 2nd millennium B.C. Centuries of habitation and conquest by Greeks, Romans, Hittites, Akkadians, Ottomans and others left their stamp on the city – including the Citadel, the 12th-century Great Mosque and 16th and 17th century madrasas, residences, khans and public baths.
Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din: two of the most significant crusader castles in the Middle East. The Crac des Chevaliers was built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem from 1142 to 1271,with additions by the Mamluks in the late 13th century.The Qal’at Salah El-Din (Fortress of Saladin), partly in ruins, is a prime example of this type of fortification, with features from its Byzantine beginnings to the mid 13th century.
Ancient villages of northern Syria: Some 40 villages grouped in eight parks are remarkable testimony to rural life from pagan times in late Antiquity to the Byzantine period. Abandoned in the 8th to 10th centuries, the villages, which date from the 1st to 7th centuries, feature a remarkably well preserved landscape and the architectural remains of dwellings, including pagan temples, churches, cisterns, bathhouses.
So, is anybody listening to the UN's plea? Not Syria, which brushed off the mounting destruction of the historic sites as looting, and refused to admit any blame. Meanwhile severe damange has already been reported at some of the sites, and neither government nor rebels show any reluctance to inflict more. If stones could weep, the ancient ground would be flooded.
Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.