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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge