Syrian Battle Puts Art Treasures at Risk: Martin Gayford

The citadel at Aleppo
The citadel at Aleppo, Syria. Aleppo unsuccessfully tried to keep out invading Hittites, Assyrians, Arabs, Mamelukes and Ottomans with giant moats and weathered stone walls two meters (6 feet) thick. Source: Aleppo Chamber of Commerce via Bloomberg

One casualty of the current Syrian conflict is seldom mentioned in the news: the country’s extraordinary archaeological and architectural heritage.

The landscape is covered, in some areas thickly, with late Roman cities, medieval and Byzantine castles, mosques, and early Christian churches.

When I visited them two years ago, they seemed half-forgotten, scarcely visited and extraordinarily intact.

(To see a slideshow of ancient Syrian sites, click here.)

Now the defensive positions that were used hundreds of years ago have been fought over once again. Tanks have occupied buildings originally fortified hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. Ancient walls have been blown up and classical mosaics looted from museums.

One of the places affected is Apamea, a city in the valley of the Orontes in central Syria, founded in 300 B.C. It was a wonderfully tranquil place when I went there. I walked down the 1,850 meter (6,070 feet) colonnade of the Roman era main street and admired the mosaics in the little museum. Since then, thieves have managed to remove two huge stone capitals from that astonishing street.

Photographs of 12 mosaics stolen from that museum are now on the Interpol website. The mosaics were drilled out of the floors and walls, according to reports in the Daily Star of Lebanon and the quarterly journal Antiquity.

Shelled Citadel

The 13th-century citadel of al-Madiq located above the site of ancient Apamea -- which contains a village within its walls - -is on YouTube, with its caption indicating it was heavily shelled in January.

Apamea is just one example. Among numerous others is the Crusader fortress of Krac des Chevaliers, often regarded as the most magnificent castle surviving anywhere. It was also shelled, causing damage to the chapel within. The historic buildings of Homs have been shattered, judging from photographs.

There are six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria: Damascus, Aleppo, Krac des Chevaliers, Bosra, Palmyra and the deserted late classical settlements known as the Dead Cities that dot the northern landscape.

Every single one of these has been damaged, or is currently under threat. Aleppo, with its magnificent souk and medieval citadel, has been the center of an intense firefight.

There’s also a high risk of organized theft from the museums of Syria, especially the smaller provincial ones.

Already losses have been reported from a number of them, including the one in the little town of Maarat al-Numaan, site of an uprising against the Assad regime in 2011.

Destruction List

The mosaics there were even more spectacular than those at Apamea. The list of destruction goes on and on. A detailed report on the damage up to May 2012 by Emma Cunliffe of Durham University is available on the Global Heritage Fund website.

Obviously all of the above, though very sad, matters little in comparison with the tens of thousands of human casualties in the war. Equally, there’s not a great deal that can be done about it.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has called more than once for both sides to respect the cultural heritage of Syria.

Of course, there’s not much hope that, in the heat of a bitter civil war, they will. It’s worth remembering, however, that as well as being a battle zone, Syria is an extraordinarily beautiful place. At some point it just may be possible to do something to protect it.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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