One of the most tragic consequences of the three year war in Syria has been the destruction of historic architectural sites and the loss of archaeological treasures of immense significance. Severe damage has been caused to all six world heritage sites in the country. Syria is arguably that one place on earth that has more ancient monuments and historic sites than any other country in the world.
In January 2013, one of the rebel groups, called the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), destroyed a sixth century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa. According to the writer, Patrick Cockburn, other sites destroyed by rebel groups like this include a Roman cemetery and “statues carved out of the sides of a valley at al-Qatora” in Aleppo province. The church “at St. Simeon has been turned into a military training area and artillery range by the rebels.”
Rebel groups are not the only culprits. Pitched battles between the Syrian Army and the rebels have also led to the destruction of historic sites. The one thousand year old minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo — a world heritage site — was destroyed in early 2013. The city’s Souk Al-Madina, the largest covered historic market in the world, was burnt and partially destroyed in September 2012, as a result of the fighting between the Army and the rebels. The Omari Mosque, the Crac des Chevaliers and Palmyra’s temples have all been rocked by shells, mortar bombs and rockets.
Apart from the destruction brought about by actual conflict situations, Syria’s great archaeological treasures have also become victims of looters. Much of this looting which is now massive involves mafias from Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey abetted by Syrians themselves. Many inside and outside West Asia have profited from this despicable activity.
While military encounters and looting have had a devastating impact upon Syria’s rich heritage, those who really care about the country are equally concerned about rebel groups who for narrow, bigoted ideological reasons are hell-bent on destroying statues and sculptures that portray the human form. They regard such depictions as an affront to their religious beliefs. It explains why in rebel controlled areas there is a concerted drive to destroy mosaics with mythological figures and Greek and Roman statues from an earlier age.
It is this same mentality that is responsible for attacks on some historical sites in Iraq — though the Anglo-American occupation also caused immense damage to the nation’s historical heritage such as when the US military turned an area in ancient Babylon into Camp Alpha in 2003 and 2004. The destruction of the Buddhist shrines in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, by the Taliban in 2001 is also a product of the same religious bigotry. Bigots who defiled the mausoleums of Sufi saints in Timbuktu, Mali in 2013 were also adhering to the same dogmatic script that their counterparts in other Muslim countries had faithfully followed.
The danger posed by religious bigotry to the history and identity of a nation will have to be dealt with through mass education aimed at developing an accommodative and inclusive outlook on matters of faith and belief. Unfortunately, there are very few religious teachers and scholars within the Muslim world who are prepared to assume this responsibility at this juncture. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for instance has made no attempt to draw together the ulama (religious scholars) within the ummah (community) to fight the sort of bigotry that provides religious legitimacy to the destruction of a people’s memory.
However, UNESCO has made efforts to alert the world to the destruction that is happening in Syria. There have been some positive responses. But much more has to be done to save Syria’s illustrious history which is humanity’s common heritage.