Syrian Heritage in Crisis

The Syrian Heritage Initiative, the US State Department, and UNESCO work together to save world heritage sites under attack by the Islamic State.

The ancient city of Dura-Europa, located in Syria on the banks of the Tigris, was once a little piece of Rome in a distant patch of the empire. It was a place for Romans to live as Romans, an outpost that established their cultural dominance in the region and stands as a symbol for a modern country that has seen eons of human experience and development.

There are hundreds of sites like Dura-Europa located in Syria and Iraq. These are countries which hold a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, preserved by the desert and telling a story of civilization that stretches back 10,000 years. They are a source of pride for the Syrian and Iraqi people, and have been important economically for the tourism they attract to these countries.

In recent years, however, the chaos of war has placed these sites under great threat, especially with the sudden spread of the Islamic State, known more commonly as ISIS or ISIL. Dura-Europa, Mari, and Tell Sheikh Hamad are almost unrecognizable, as satellite imaging shows industrial scale looting. Temples and mosques have been destroyed through acts of cultural genocide, carried out by the Islamic State. Cultural objects are sold on the black market as museums are targeted by criminals exploiting the anarchy that often accompanies war.

According to the United Nations, four of Syria’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites are currently being used for military purposes, leading to excessive damage to the Great Mosque of Aleppo: bullet-holes pepper the ancient arches, sandbags are piled in the center of the courtyard where soldiers are occupying the site, and a large hole stands out half-way up the side of a minaret where it was struck with an explosive. The Great Mosque damage illustrates the intense altercation between opposing sides in a war that does not seem to be ending soon.


aleppomosqueThe Syrian civil war has taken its toll on the Great Mosque of Aleppo. Gabriele Fangi, Wissam Wahbeh, Wikimedia Commons.


UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova and other key UN officials released a rare joint statement stating that “destroying the inheritance of the past robs future generations of a powerful legacy, deepens hatred and despair and undermines all attempts to foster reconciliation.” The Syrian and Iraqi governments have thus far been ineffective at mitigating the ongoing destruction of their history and culture. Though it is clear that Syria and Iraq have many other issues on their hands, top UN officials have stated that cultural heritage should be treated with the same priority as human lives.

At the forefront of the movement to save Syria’s heritage is the Syrian Heritage Initiative, backed by the US Department of State and organized by the American Schools of Oriental Research. This is a 12-month program which will focus its efforts on documenting the impact of conflict on heritage sites through a variety of media, and communicate with Syrian heritage specialists, volunteer networks, and officials of non-governmental organizations who will verify the condition of sites and collections. Co-directing the Syrian Heritage Initiative, Michael Danti, Ph. D, plays a critical role in the effort to collect data from the ground and to report the level of damage to the U.S. State department. The State Department in turn funds the Syrian Heritage Initiative and raises awareness to the cause. Danti has over twenty years experience in Syria and has been the first American archaeologist in fifty years to gain access to the Zagros Mountains in the Kurdish regions of Iraq. There is a growing collection of satellite feeds, written accounts, and photographs taken on site to document damage and assist key participants like Danti in organizing the preservation effort.

“The recent activity of the Islamic State wasn’t something that was on anybody’s radar,” said Danit in an interview. “The rate and magnitude of the destruction is very different now from when the project was first envisioned.”

Now, the destructive intent of the Islamic State has captured the world’s attention, especially with the intentional annihilation of the famed Tomb of Jonah, an act that has enraged Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

Much of the preservation work on the ground is now done by concerned citizens and people who previously worked in the Syrian heritage sector, people who are now unemployed due to infrastructure collapse. Their jobs mostly consist of sandbagging structures and repairing masonry work, much like one site of interest noted by Danti—a site that was in danger of its dome collapsing due to deterioration of one of its walls.

According to Professor Danti, collections of interest include “archives in various places from researchers or photographers who were researching Syrian architecture or other historic topics, big archives, original notes and photographs that have never been digitized and obviously they’re at risk to destruction. and that’s something that we especially want to try to preserve.”

Danti recently reported heavy looting at a site north of Tell es-Sweyhat by the Islamic State, noting that when studying satellite imagery of a site, Pick-up trucks and people can be seen. The fact that looting was not a problem before the Islamic State was in control of an area and the well-supported fact that they are hiring people to loot is strong circumstantial evidence that points in the direction of the Islamic State.

In a speech on September 22 at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Secretary-of-State John Kerry stated the significance of taking action against IS: “We gather in the midst of one of the most tragic and one of the most outrageous assaults on our shared heritage that perhaps any of us have seen in a lifetime. Ancient treasures in Iraq and in Syria have now become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting. And no one group has done more to put our shared cultural heritage in the gun sights than ISIL… ISIL is not only beheading individuals; it is tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations. It has no respect for life. It has no respect for religion. And it has no respect for culture, which for millions is actually the foundation of life.” A very moving statement, signifying what humanity stands to lose in the face of cultural genocide and total warfare. It is not only about human life. It is much of our world heritage at stake.


Cover Image, Top Left: Ruins of Palmyra, Syria. Isaw Nyu, Wikimedia Commons

Mark Hallum

Mark Hallum is a staff writer for Popular Archaeology Magazine.