Past and future

The civil war in Syria war threatens to do irreparable damage to the country's archaeological treasures.

When Unesco described the Great Mosque of Aleppo as "one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world", few would have begged to differ. The landmark12th-century building was an icon of Islamic architecture. As well as a place of worship, it served as a document of history, a national treasure and a testament to the breathtaking beauty that architecture can inspire.

Until two weeks ago, that is, when it was ravaged by fire. Now, the famous stonewash courtyard is charred by flames. The domed interiors, hung with gold chandeliers, lie in rubble. Enamelled mosaic tiles are scattered on the floor alongside broken windows and empty ammunition cases.

The fate of the Ummayad mosque is becoming a sadly familiar story for the cultural heritage of Syria. Earlier this month, the centuries-old Aleppo souk was destroyed, adding to an ever-increasing list of archaeological devastation.

There are six UNESCO world heritage sites in Syria – sites so important to human history that they have an international mandate to protect them; not one of them has so far escaped the conflict unscathed.

The destruction to historic sites is one of the less-reported on results of the civil war in Syria, and understandably so – next to the devastating human cost, it seems almost callous to worry about the fate of inanimate objects. Yet as Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO noted, “the historic and highly symbolic value of this heritage … [needs to be preserved] for the whole of humanity.”

It is difficult to overstate Syria’s archaeological significance – the landscape is nothing short of a palimpsest of world history. Throughout the country, the remains and ruins of building chart the rise and fall of centuries over the millennia. From Neolithic fragments to Bronze age friezes, Roman temples, Mesopotamian trade routes, early Christian churches and some of the most magnificent Islamic art ever created, Syria can rightly be regarded as a living museum. But now, these pages of history are now in serious danger of being wiped for ever.

Syria is a signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, meaning that there is an international incentive to intervene to protect its cultural heritage. Whilst many NGOs and archeological organisations are campaigning for this, the scale of the conflict has largely restricted their actions so far to mere lobbying. UNESCO has released several statements calling for appeals, with the hope of being able to send someone in to assess the damage if the situation permits. Smaller groups are doing their best to publicise their damage as well, and the Syrian-based Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) are actively working on monitoring the situation. Yet, when dealing with a crisis of this magnitude – when the safety and protection of civilians cannot even be secured – people are increasingly asking what hope there can be for architecture?

As Julien Anfruns, the Director General of ICOM (the International Council of Museums) notes, “When we deal with these emergencies, our first action is to evaluate [the damage] …when we are in places in which it is very difficult to intervene because of combats, satellite monitoring is really instrumental.”

Indeed, satellite monitoring of certain cultural sites has been deployed in some areas of Syria already, but the high financial cost and relatively low priority of this means that it offers a far from conclusive picture of the damage.

In response to this, alternate, practical ways to chart the destruction are developing. Syrians, concerned about their heritage, are increasingly using ground-level footage taken on mobile phones and video-cameras to survey the most important sites. One of the most extensive is the Facebook page "Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger". Founded by several Syrian and European archaeologists, the group is endeavoring to compile as accurate a picture as possible of damage to historic sites through posted photographs and eye-witness reports. It is proving to be an invaluable resource.

Lawrence Rothfield, former director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, believes that new technologies offer some of the most effective ways to tackle the crisis. “What we need at the moment is real-time or close-to-real-time evidence, which cell phone technology can provide at a much lower cost [than satellites]”.

“If the warring parties know that they can be indicted for war crimes based on imagery showing they were the first to move onto a protected site or that they are enabling and profiting from the looting of sites, they may think twice”.

Damage from shelling and gunfire is only one of the hazards affecting Syria’s cultural heritage. The almost incalculable international value of such scholarly objects means that looting is a huge danger. As Emma Cunliffe, a doctoral student in archaeology at Durham University, who has compiled one of the most definitive reports on the damage in Syria so far, observes: “Looting is going to be a huge problem. There are a lot of videos online of looting at the world heritage, and that’s very worrying because they’re the prominent ones, and I’ve heard circulating reports of damage at smaller sites as well”. Previous experience with looting, notably in post-conflict Iraq suggests that future prospects are bleak. “In Iraq, these looter gangs were getting up to 200 people, and the problem is you can put resources in place at one site – even if you did have the resources to scare off two hundred guys – they would just go to the  next one. And you can’t have two hundred people at every site”.

Like the Ummayad mosque, many of the most important Syrian sites are built in militarily strategic locations (the crusaders had reasons for their geographic specifications), and these are most likely to be appropriated by one or both of the warring parties in the current conflict. Even with international awareness increasing, one things is guaranteed: as long as the conflict continues, damage to cultural sites will continue. Rothfield says: “The future of Syria's past looks very grim.”

A Syrian rebel inside the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo (Photograph: GettyImages)

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.



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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood