The tragedy of Syrian cultural heritage through the lens of six endangered UNESCO sites

The tragedy of Syrian heritage told through six UNESCO sites
10 min read
22 June, 2023
UNESCO's response to Syria shows how cultural heritage has been politicised. Through the lens of six of Syria's most treasured sites, we're able to see how preservation efforts have been hampered and how the Syrian people have been left behind.

The stated purpose of UNESCO's World Heritage list is to protect our universal heritage for future generations to enjoy.

Focusing on sites marked as 'in danger' can provide valuable insights into UNESCO's primary function of education. By understanding the unique risks faced by each of these sites we can gain a clearer understanding of the priorities and oversights of the countries in which they are located.

Studying any of these 39 cities, buildings, or monuments provides insight into the historic culture of a particular state. It also highlights the current government's shortcomings in preserving that culture, whether due to a lack of ability or unwillingness.

Six of the World Heritage ‘in danger’ sites lie within Syria’s borders. With the education mission in mind, what then can be learned of Syria’s past and present on their inspection?

"The Arab region currently encompasses a total of 23 UNESCO World Heritage sites that are at risk and in need of immediate attention. Each of these sites holds significance and warrants focused efforts for their conservation as they face diverse challenges and threats"

The six sites have origins that span various periods in the history of the nation, some spanning centuries or even millennia.

Each of these sites was designated as a world heritage site at different times. The only commonality they share, aside from their country of origin, is the year they were added to the 'in danger' list.

To historians, journalists or even politicians, it may be that their variety proves so instructive.

In just one UNESCO announcement, every World Heritage site in Syria was added to the ‘in danger’ list. This was in 2013 – the second year of the Syrian war.

Syrian heritage

Focusing solely on a country's cultural heritage to make judgements is unwise, especially when the country is still at war after a decade since the UNESCO announcement and 12 years since the conflict began.

It's possible to see similarities or imitations, but it's important to acknowledge the human element first. Ignoring this would be insensitive and careless. It's like looking through a broken pair of glasses and revealing more about the observer's carelessness rather than the fractured picture of the observed.

In 2011, protests during the Arab Spring were met with severe repression by the state, leading to violent clashes against protesters by the government. These initial confrontations sparked further protests and violence that quickly spiralled out of control. The situation became even more complicated with the emergence of the Islamic State group in 2014, which became a third pole of the conflict.

The Syrian people suffered greatly due to proxy forces and direct foreign involvement, with the number of refugees reaching 3.8 million by 2015. The UN estimated the cost of material destruction at approximately $120 billion by 2018. As of 2022, there are 5.6 million refugees and 6.2 million people internally displaced. 

According to agreed figures, the civil conflict in Syria resulted in a total of 470,000 deaths, with over 300,000 being civilian casualties. Despite the likelihood of an undercount, this still ranks the conflict as the second deadliest of the 21st century. The impact of the war on Syria has been significant, with entire towns, neighbourhoods, and family homes being destroyed.

It's important to keep this context in mind when discussing World Heritage sites, as their value is only meaningful in relation to our human experiences.

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Following the call of Ammar Azzouz, the struggle of the people must be firmly placed within the scope of our review, it is they who must be made the focus of the analysis, and the rich and dense historical narratives that accompany these incredible sites should only serve as framing for their experience.

Ancient City of Damascus

Dating back to 10,000 BC, Damascus is an ancient city that has been continuously inhabited, making it one of the oldest cities in the world.

As a World Heritage site declared in 1979, it has played host to countless residents throughout its seven millennia of existence. Its diverse architecture is a testament to the influence of different empires and states, including the Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans.

Scholars have long recognised Damascus as a hub between the East and West, with the iconic Umayyad mosque showcasing the city's tolerance and rebirth. It's worth noting that Ancient Damascus is part of the modern-day capital of the regime, with the presidential palace situated just a short walk from this historic mosque.

Ancient City of Damascus by Francesco Bandarin, 2007
Ancient City of Damascus by Francesco Bandarin, 2007

Krak des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah el-Din

Similar to the ancient city of Damascus, the twin fortresses of Krak des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah el-Din serve as a testament to resilience. The first fortress, built by the Hospitalier order of Saint John of Jerusalem in the 12th-13th centuries, sits atop a hill and was strategically placed to oversee a hostile territory. The second fortress, constructed by the Byzantines on a precarious ridge between ravines, was built to be impregnable and was tested on multiple occasions.

Krak des Chevaliers Crusader Castle by Vyacheslav Argenberg, 2008
The crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers by Vyacheslav Argenberg, 2008

Although the first fortress was lost to Sultan Baibars after a long siege, it was later restored and reconstructed by the Mamluks, who replaced the chapel with a mosque.

In contrast, the second fortress was won by the Ayyubid Sultan Salah el-Din in a battle that lasted just three days. The French mandate in Syria has carefully preserved the first fortress to honour its Christian heritage, while the second fortress has, unfortuantely, been left to the passage of time.

Saladin’s Castle by JYB Devot, 2010
Qal’at Salah el-Din, 'Saladin’s Castle', by JYB Devot, 2010

During modern warfare, the aftermath isn't always straightforward and reconstruction doesn't always follow destruction.

Unfortunately, even after being designated a UNESCO world heritage site, the Krak des Chevaliers has been targeted twice during the Siege of Homs, resulting in significant damage and civilian casualties.

Similarly, while the Qal'at Salah el-Din avoided human intervention, one of its fortified towers collapsed during a recent earthquake that recently struck Northern Syria and Turkey.

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Ancient City of Bosra

Prior to the French mandate conducting repairs on the Krak des Chevaliers, a site survey recorded the existence of a small village within the ruins of approximately 500 people.

The government's mandate resulted in the eviction of certain individuals who could argue to have stronger rights to the land and buildings than the foreign power.

Similarly, in the ancient city of Bosra – first referenced in Egyptian tablets dating from the 14th century BC – a UNESCO report of 2009 reiterated the World Heritage status of the city for its intact Roman theatre, extensive Nabatean ruins and association with the life of the Prophet Muhammad, also positively appraised a resettlement policy in action.

The intention of the policy was to remedy what UNESCO called the ‘problematic setting’ of the site relative to modern dwellings amongst the ruins. It had the paradoxical ultimate goal of turning the old town into a ‘dead city revitalised as an open-air museum’. If the cost of protection for sites is this high, can it ever be worth it?

The ancient city was once the capital of the surrounding Roman province. Today it is another forgotten battlefield and living cemetery.

The main street of 'Decumanus Maximus' in Bosra by Wilhelms, 2005
Bosra's ancient main street 'Decumanus Maximus' by Wilhelms, 2005

Ancient City of Aleppo

Throughout its history, Aleppo has been under the rule of various civilisations, including the Hittites, Assyrians, Arabs, Mongols, Mamluks, and Ottomans.

Each of these civilisations left their own unique mark on the city, before passing it on to the next. The central citadel, with its stunning beauty and combination of functionality and grandeur, is a sight to behold.

As one looks up at each level built on top of the other, it's hard not to wonder if this current generation will be the first to leave a lasting legacy that will be remembered for years to come.

The ancient city of Aleppo, Kev Forkan, 2011
The ancient city of Aleppo, Kev Forkan, 2011

There were once concerns about overpopulation and the loss of traditional approaches to conservation. Following the Syrian Civil War and the earthquake, those concerns are more pressing.

In 2018, pre-earthquake, the judgement was already damning. More than 10% of Aleppo’s historic buildings were destroyed, and half of the sampled 518 buildings assessed by UNESCO showed between moderate and severe damage.

It was calculated that it would take approximately six years of continuous work to clear the debris. Were that work to take place, if it ever became a priority, it would be a noble effort.

Palmyra and the Northern Villages of Syria

Of the six Syrian sites highlighted, the fifth, Palmyra, is the one about which most has been written.

As Lynn Meskell, the archaeologist and anthropologist surmised, "Western cultural elites have spent more time lamenting damage to a single site, the Classical ruins of Palmyra, than the destruction inflicted on hundreds of Islamic mosques and shrines across Iraq and Syria combined."

Palmyra, positioned at the crossroads of trade routes connecting Persia, India, China, and the Roman Empire, emerged as a prominent hub of cultural exchange during ancient times.

Consequently, Palmyra's significance as a cultural centre in the ancient world, along with the remarkable preservation of its remnants and the enchanting tale of its 'rediscovery' by European explorers, captivates the imagination.

The ancient Roman theatre of Palmyra, Jerzy Strzelecki, 2007
The ancient Roman theatre of Palmyra, Jerzy Strzelecki, 2007

The ancient villages of Northern Syria, the sixth and final site, contrast greatly with Palmyra due to their remote location and vague nomenclature.

Consisting of a collection of 40 scattered locations organized into eight architectural parks, these villages span from the 1st to the 7th centuries.

While Palmyra possesses an almost mythical reputation, the enigmatic nature of the Northern Villages stems from the limited knowledge surrounding them.

Scholars have observed that when viewed collectively, these sites reveal an impressive understanding of agriculture, suggesting that the inhabitants were skilled at sustaining themselves on the land.

The villages exhibit signs of prosperity, featuring well-constructed homes, water cisterns, and pagan temples where residents would offer prayers to their gods.

Despite their origins spanning a 700-year period, research has unveiled that all the villages were abandoned within a 200-year timeframe, between the 8th and 10th centuries. However, the reasons behind their abandonment and the processes leading to their eventual deterioration remain unknown.

Serjilla, one of the best preserved of the 'Dead Cities' in north-western Syria. Vyacheslav Argenberg. 2008
Serjilla, one of the best preserved of the 'Dead Cities' in north-western Syria. Vyacheslav Argenberg. 2008

Final thoughts

A focus on World Heritage sites alone provides a lens that ultimately obscures more than it reveals.

The 2013 decision to list all six Syrian sites simultaneously was devised in order to focus attention on the unbridled devastation the conflict was causing.

By fixing the international gaze on these endangered locations, UNESCO was attempting to offer them protection and secure their futures, making plain the global condemnation that would follow their mistreatment.

By reasserting their universal value, a pitch was made to others around the world that we should care about Syria. This may have been a necessary means of securing a place in the ever-changing cycle of news, of guaranteeing increased donations or well-meaning political statements, but for people within Syria, it may also have seemed grotesque. Empathy built from a personal stake is not empathy at all.

Azzouz warned that focusing on ‘celebrity-like sites’ can result in ignorance of everyday spaces; the homes, shops or places of worship that build a neighbourhood. However, whilst it is true that UNESCO is limited by their remit, more could be made to celebrate the intangible heritage of the country through its food, music or art.

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The Arab region currently encompasses a total of 23 UNESCO World Heritage sites that are at risk and in need of immediate attention.

Each of these sites holds significance and warrants focused efforts for their conservation as they face diverse challenges and threats.

Abu Mena in Egypt is at risk from new development, Ashur in Iraq and Shibam in Yemen are degrading with environmental change, while the Rachid Karami Trade Fair in Lebanon sits abandoned and unfunded.

The dereliction of any of these sites would be a small tragedy. However, if UNESCO wants to restore the link between people and their heritage, actively working to memorialise and protect heritage aligned with the contemporary lived experience of Syrians, Arabs and others across the wider world – it might be time to revisit campaigns that take a modern view of heritage, doing away with some of the glamour and refocusing on the currently side-lined shared spaces.

One example is in the work of Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal. In 2014, the pair sought to achieve World Heritage status for a refugee camp in Bethlehem with Petti asking "how else do you record the heritage of a culture of exile?" We might consider other questions like these to ensure that the heritage that is protected educates as much as it entertains.

Will Spiers is a policy researcher and writer based in London. Will read history as an undergraduate, then completed a Master's in Political Science at the American University of Beirut