War Is Also Hell on Art and Antiquities

Thousands of lives have been lost in Syria, along with part of the country’s 5,000 years of cultural history.
Syrian security personnel in front of Aleppo's historic Citadel. (Stringer / Reuters)
Aug 17, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

The news out of Syria seems to get worse every day. The Guardian reported in July that, “An activist group claims that more than 2,750 people have been killed in Syria so far this month, bringing the death toll since the conflict began to more than 19,000.”

Along with their lives, the people in this beleaguered nation are losing their heritage and their ancestors’ link to the past. “Preservationists and archaeologists are warning that fighting in Syria’s commercial capital, Aleppo—considered the world’s oldest continuously inhabited human settlement—threatens to damage irreparably the stunning architectural and cultural legacy left by 5,000 years of civilizations,” reports The New York Times.

“Already the massive iron doors to the city’s immense medieval Citadel have been blown up in a missile attack, said Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund, an organization that works to preserve cultural heritage sites.”

MORE: Red Cross: Syria Officially Enters Civil War Mode

Business Week made the same assessment yesterday, saying, “One casualty of the current Syrian conflict is seldom mentioned in the news: the country’s extraordinary archaeological and architectural heritage . . . 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.”

Unfortunately, the Middle East has been down this road before. Back in 2009, the Huffington Post reported that, “Buried in Iraq's clay and dirt is the history of Western civilization. Great empires once thrived here, cultures that produced the world's first wheel, first cities, first agriculture, first code of law, first base-sixty number system, and very possibly the first writing. A brutal plundering of this rich cultural heritage has been taking place in broad daylight ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. These days Ancient Mesopotamia looks more like a scene from the movie Holes.”

And during last year uprising in Egypt, National Geographic said, “Archaeologist Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, reports that several of the country’s museums have been attacked by looters taking advantage of the political turmoil in the country.”

While none of this compares to the loss of 19,000 Syrian lives—or the untold thousands in Iraq and Egypt—it’s truly heartrending in its own way.

The Times quotes Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, as observing, “The Assad government’s primary concern is to destroy the rebels, and the opposition’s fighters want to remove Assad from power. During the massacre that occurred in Hama in 1982, he added, “Assad’s father bombed mosques. A government that readily kills its own people cannot be expected to respect and preserve historical monuments, bricks and mortar. All is expendable for control of the country.”

And Business Week summed things up pretty succinctly, saying, “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.”

Is there any way to help protect the architectural and cultural history of countries in the midst of war? Do you even think this is something we should be concerned with?

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Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com

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