War Has Damaged All but One of Syria's World Heritage Site
December 22, 2014
Huge Naylor / Al Jazeera America & Elahe Izadi / Al Jazeera America
Syria's vast archaeological sites have suffered extensive damage because of bombing by government warplanes and the demolition of religious shrines by Islamic State militants. But there is an increasing, perhaps more menacing problem: old-fashioned plunder. A new report has found evidence of "widespread looting" at locations that Syria has nominated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Syria's Ancient Sites Were Already Damaged by War.
Now They're Being Looted
Huge Naylor / Al Jazeera America
BEIRUT (December 20, 2014) -- Syria's vast archaeological sites have suffered extensive damage because of bombing by government warplanes and the demolition of religious shrines by Islamic State militants. But there is an increasing, perhaps more menacing problem: old-fashioned plunder.
A new report has found evidence of "widespread looting" at locations that Syria has nominated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Under threat are the remains of a Mesopotamian trading post and a 4,500-year-old city that housed thousands of cuneiform tablets, as well as an ancient town with a chapel known for containing the world's oldest depictions of Jesus, according to the report, released this past week by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Susan Wolfinbarger, director of the association's Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, which produced the study, said in a statement that "unlike our previous analysis of Syria's World Heritage Sites, we're seeing a lot of damage that appears to be the result of widespread looting."
The report draws on satellite imagery of six of the 12 sites that Syria has nominated for World Heritage status.
Four of those have sustained extensive damage, according to the findings, which were compiled with help from the University of Pennsylvania Museum's Penn Cultural Heritage Center and the Smithsonian Institution.
Three of the damaged sites suffer from looting that "appears to have ramped up during the last year," the report states, citing images of what look like excavation vehicles and thousands of pits where impromptu digging seems to have taken place.
The study, which will be followed by a report on damage to the country's other six proposed World Heritage sites, identifies Dura-Europos, a city with roots in the 3rd century B.C., as the most affected by looting.
On the west bank of the Euphrates River, it was influenced by the ancient Greeks as well as Romans and Persians, and it houses a well-preserved synagogue and an ancient chapel with paintings of Jesus thought to be produced in A.D. 235.
The report adds to evidence that the level of looting iafter nearly four years of fighting "is virtually unprecedented" in modern history, said Michael Danti, an archaeology professor at Boston University. He also is the co-director of the American Schools of Oriental Research Syrian Heritage Initiative, which is funded by the State Department to monitor at-risk sites in the country.
Six locations in Syria have already received World Heritage status, and most all of them have been badly damaged amid fighting between government forces and rebels. Perhaps the most well known is Aleppo, where parts of the Great Mosque and the citadel have been smashed.
"The level of destruction of archaeological sites in Syria since the uprising began has been catastrophic," said Charles E. Jones, an expert on Middle East antiquities at Pennsylvania State University. Given that so many areas of the country contain ancient artifacts, he said, it is "hardly surprising that this has happened as the chaos has deepened."
The new study found that damage to one proposed World Heritage site, the eastern city of Raqqa, probably did not result from fighting or looting. The city, founded in 300 B.C., is the capital of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate, which spans territory in Syria and Iraq. During medieval times, Raqqa briefly served as the capital of an Islamic empire that stretched from central Asia to North Africa.
The destruction of structures in the city was likely due to demolitions by the Islamic State, also know as ISIS or ISIL, the report says.
The Islamic State has destroyed historical treasures in Iraq and Syria, including churches, mosques and religious shrines, that do not fall in line with its rigid interpretation of Sunni Islam.
The group also has profited from stealing and selling artifacts. In Iraq, it reportedly controls over 4,000 archaeological sites.
Desperate for cash, ordinary Syrians also have participated in looting, and so have forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Smuggling rings spirit away the items to Europe and other areas.
Pascal Butterlin, a professor of archaeology at the University of Paris who has spent 20 years working in Syria, wrote in an e-mail that the looting of the country's archaeological sites was the "worst patrimonial disaster since World War II."
Hugh Naylor is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Post. He has reported from over a dozen countries in the Middle East for such publications as The National, an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, and The New York Times.
War Has Damaged All but One of
Syria’s World Heritage Sites, Satellite Images Show
Elahe Izadi / Al Jazeera America
[View: Satellite images show Syria's damaged World heritage sites]
(September 24, 2014) -- Syria is home to six World Heritage Sites, places frozen in time with some structures that pre-date the Crusades. The six sites have been singled out and selected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as being "of special cultural or physical significance."
But years of war and strife have left their mark on the country's ancient landmarks, even before American airstrikes began this week.
A new report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science shows the extent of that destruction: Using high-resolution satellite imagery, AAAS discovered that five of Syria's six World Heritage Sites had sustained significant damage.
Only the ancient city of Damascus appears to have been spared.
The U.S. missile strikes that began Monday night focused on northern and eastern Syria and included targets around the old city of Aleppo, which is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, one of about 1,000 around the globe.
There has been concern over Syria's World Heritage Sites since the beginning of the conflict -- and in 2013, the World Heritage Committee placed all six Syrian sites on its "danger list" of places at risk of being irreparably damaged or lost forever. Reports have even emerged of fighters-turned-archaeologists plundering the country's -- and civilization's -- historical treasures to finance fighting.
"Antiquities officials in Iraq and Syria warn of a disaster as the region’s history is erased," the Associated Press reported.
The AAAS report zeroed in on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria, using satellite images to create before-and-after comparisons. Here are their findings.
Ancient city of Aleppo
Added to the World Heritage list in 1986, Aleppo was at the crossroads of trade routes from the 2nd millennium B.C. and includes multiple structures of significance: a 13th Century citadel, the 12th Century Great Mosque and palaces, caravanserais, madrasas and hammams from the 17th Century.
You can click here to zoom on the damage to Aleppo. Here is a before-and-after comparison showing damage to the Great Mosque, Suq al-Madina.
In the image above, a green arrow points to damage on the roof of the Suq al-Madina. A red arrow points to the minaret of the Great Mosque, which has been destroyed. Blue arrows point out two craters on the eastern wall. Yellow arrows point to multiple nearby structures that were heavily damaged.
The area south of the citadel in Aleppo is home to numerous government buildings, where heavy damage occurred during the fighting.
In the image above, a red arrow points to the Ministry of Justice building, which was heavily damaged. The green arrow points to heavy damage on the Khusriwiye Mosque. A blue arrow points to the spot where the Carlton Citadel Hotel once stood -- it was completely destroyed. Yellow arrows point to surrounding historical structures that were also destroyed.
Just one month later, the Khusriwiye Mosque had been almost completely demolished, as shown by the green arrow in the image above. An orange arrow points to heavy damage to the Grand Serail. A purple arrow points to the Hammam Yalbougha an-Nasry's dome, which was destroyed.
Elsewhere in Aleppo, the Khan Qurt Bey caravanserai, which dates back to the 15th Century, sustained heavy damage to its east wall, while most structures directly to the east of the site were completely destroyed.
In the image above, a blue arrow points to the east wall of the Kahn Qurt Bey caravanserai, with yellow arrows pointing at nearby structures that were heavily damaged.
Ancient City of Bosra
This city served as the capital of Arabia, a Roman province, and is home to ruins from the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic civilizations. There is a 2nd Century Roman theater within the city, as well as Al-Omari Mosque, one of the oldest-surviving mosques.
Reports of shelling and bombs have emerged from the area during the Syrian conflict. Bosra was added to the UNESCO list in 1980.
There was little damage shown directly to the Roman theater, although war has been present; snipers have been shown shooting from the theater and fortress.
Yellow arrows show how ramps and berms have been constructed near the theater’s east entrance, and a small hill at the site to the west has been partially excavated.
These next images show the Al-Omari Mosque.
Yellow arrows point to spots that are likely shell craters, which experts say caused structural damage throughout the site, including a hole in the mosque's roof. The standing ancient Roman ruins also appear to have a shell crater.
Ancient Site of Palmyra
This site served as an oasis and was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world. Added to the UNESCO list in 1980, Palmyra is home to Greco-Roman and Persian ruins, including ancient temples, a theater and a Roman-period street.
Palmyra was a top tourist attraction before the conflict, but looters, military occupation and firefights have plagued the area since.
The image above shows how the park been disrupted by the construction of a new road traversing the site. Pink areas point to earthen berms, which are being used to provide cover for military vehicles.
Elsewhere, trailers have been put into place at the Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma'ani Castle.
The road leading to the castle has been reinforced with earthen berms, shown in the image above. Two trailers have been put into place near the citadel, which is also shown from ground-based photographs.
The ancient city wall is indicated by a yellow arrow in the image above. A purple arrow points to the barracks of Diocletian’s camp.
In the image above, a pink arrow points to a portion of the wall that was destroyed to make way for a military encampment. Blue arrows point to where the wall was fortified by earthen berms. The terrain in the camp has also been softened.
Ancient Villages of Northern Syria
Also known as the "Dead Cities," this site is made up numerous villages that date back to the 1st and 7th centuries and were abandoned between the 8th and 10th centuries. The villages are grouped together in eight parks with ruins that represent the shift from paganism to Byzantine Christianity.
These villages, which include stunning remains of dwellings, pagan temples, churches and bathhouses, were added to the World Heritage list in 2011.
Not all of the parks were included in the AAAS report, due to a lack of satellite images. But the report did note that refugees, as well as fighters, have taken shelter in these ancient villages; some have even been living in the ancient tombs.
Most of the images from the ancient villages depict military compounds and tents erected within their walls. But the fighting has also brought damage to the Dead Cities. Here's one example:
A yellow arrow in the image above points to a standing ruin that was knocked down to make way for a new road.
Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din
These two structures are known as the Crusader Castles, and their still-standing ruins were the world's best examples of Crusader-era defense architecture. Crac des Chevaliers was rebuilt by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem during the Crusades and then once again by the Mamluks in the 13th Century. Qal’at Salah El-Din, or the Fortress of Saladin, dates back to the 10th Century and stood in partial ruins prior to the recent conflict. They were added to the UNESCO list in 2006.
While AAAS didn't point to any reported damage to the fortress, the Crac des Chevaliers has been at the center of heavy fighting, and there were reports of gunmen in the castle in 2012, according to AAAS. Free Syrian Army fighters used the site, and the Syrian military shelled the castle and its historic chapel. Airstrikes and shelling continued through March 2014, until Syrian government forces recaptured the castle.
By October 2013, numerous craters (as noted by the yellow arrows) appeared at Crac de Chevaliars, including one on the south turret's roof.
The AAAS report describes moderate structural damage to the castle, including to its southeast tower and three visible craters to the northern part of the castle.
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