Peter Lewis: Civilisation crumbles and our heritage is lost

John Kerry and William Hague met to discuss an end to fighting in Syria. Picture: AP
John Kerry and William Hague met to discuss an end to fighting in Syria. Picture: AP
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The scale of human tragedy in Syria is well documented, and now history is disappearing forever, writes Peter Lewis

the decision by President Barack Obama to supply direct military aide to the Syrian opposition for the first time, comes on the back of the stalling of proposed peace talks for the Syrian conflict. Whatever the consequences prospects for the region continue to look grim. As reports of individual acts of barbarity increase and the war seems to spill over borders with the involvement of Hezbollah in the destruction of Qusair, so the conflict appears to be hardening into a sectarian struggle between rebel Sunnis and the largely Alawite government forces. Meanwhile foreign mujahideen (apparently including some British citizens) have joined the rebels with their own agenda for toppling the government – and major foreign powers hint at arming opposing sides.

The scale of the human tragedy is of course enormous and it is hard to see that the latest developments will reduce the death toll. But there is another side to the impact of this conflict. With no signs of an end to the struggle, Syria – until recently one of the strongest, most stable parts of the Middle East – will pay a huge price both in terms of the destruction of its priceless historical assets and in the misery suffered by its human population, who are being forced to abandon their homes and flee to neighbouring countries.

The layers of history in Syria stretch back beyond recorded time with the area playing a crucial role in the development of human civilisation. Damascus, once thought of as the site of the Garden of Eden, lays claim to being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world

Mark Twain wrote after his visit in 1867, “Damascus dates back anterior to the days of Abraham…She measures time, not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise, and prosper and crumble to ruin.” The spectacular crusader castles scattered about the country seem almost modern by comparison.

It is difficult to assess, while the war continues, the full extent of the damage to this historical legacy. However the rise of social media means that numerous videos have been posted on Youtube while an organisation known as Le Patrimoine Syrien has established a Facebook page that records much of the destruction. Last year Durham University’s Emma Cunliffe, in collaboration with the Global Heritage Fund, published a report that attempted to quantify the total damage to ancient sites up to May, 2012.

The northern city of Aleppo, a multicultural crossroads for trade for some 7,000 years and a World Heritage Site (famous enough to a 17th-century British audience to be mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth) appears to have been particularly badly hit. Video clips show severe damage to the gatehouse of the massive citadel, one of the world’s finest examples of Islamic medieval military architecture, which dominates the centre of the city. The covered souk, one of the largest in the Middle East – dating from the 13th century with eight miles of lanes and studded with beautiful old khans (or caravanserai) where camel trains dropped their loads from the Silk Road, went up in flames last October. The Great Mosque, first established in the eighth century, has been the site of particularly fierce fighting – finally losing its iconic, square sided 11th-century minaret to shell fire in April of this year.

But damage extends well beyond the cities. The ruins of Apamea, an ancient city founded in the third century BC by Seleucus Nikator – one of Alexander the Great’s generals, stands on the Al-Ghab plain in the Orontes valley between the mountain chains of Jebel Ansariyya and Jebel as-Zawiyya. Its famous colonnaded street, which stretches for 1.85 kilometres, has come under tank fire and aerial photos show huge areas of the archaeological site pock-marked with holes dug by gangs of looters.

The crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, another World Heritage Site which stands on a hill dominating the strategically important Homs Gap, has also come under attack. Described by Lawrence of Arabia (who wrote his Oxford University thesis on crusader castles) as, “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world” it was the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaler throughout the crusades. As well as massive walls and cavernous halls, it contains an exquisite chapel with vaulted ceiling that would not have looked out of place in medieval France or England. Recent photographs show blast damaged walls and rubble strewn battlements, while armed looters reportedly overwhelmed castle staff to start random excavations within the walls.

There are also reports of significant damage at the World Heritage Site of Bosra, which contains one of the most spectacular Roman theatres in the world, and looting at Dura Europos, the atmospheric ruined Seleucid city that overlooks the River Euphrates. The city of Homs, built on a site occupied since the first millennium BC, has had its ancient buildings, mosques, churches and souks virtually reduced to rubble.

Looting is a major problem. Following the ransacking of ancient sites in Iraq after the last war there have been warnings of “groups of criminals”, skilled in the theft of antiquities, operating within Syria. There are reports of bulldozers being used in Apamea to dig up ancient mosaics and capitals from ancient columns being sawn off. The beautiful ruined desert city of Palmyra, once the centre of a trading empire ruled over by the warrior queen Zenobia, has also suffered clandestine looting – possibly by locals reduced to poverty by the destruction of near-by date-palm groves by government forces. One of the most valuable items yet looted is a golden Aramaic statue, from the eighth century BC, which was stolen from the museum at Hama. It appeared on Interpol’s list of “Most Wanted Works of Art” and has become something of a symbol for the destruction of Syria’s heritage.

But, of course, it is not only the physical fabric and historical treasures of Syria that have been lost or damaged. It estimated that some 90,000 people have lost their lives since the troubles began in March 2011. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that refugees are now flooding out of the country at an average rate of 8,000 a day. The numbers registered, or awaiting registration, as refugees now stands at over 1.5 million – although this is likely to be an underestimate since many Syrians with means of support will simply have left without registering.

The countries which have taken the largest numbers are Lebanon and Jordan with around half a million each – put up in host communities or special camps. Turkey has taken around 375,000, many housed in 14 specially constructed camps near the border, while Iraq has taken some 155,000 and Egypt approximately 77,000. The host countries themselves are often dealing with their own social, political and economic upheavals following the convulsions of the Arab Spring and are finding their resources and infrastructure coming under increasing strain. But this huge movement of people is only the latest episode of the “churning” of the population in the Middle East following the succession of wars and conflicts in the area.

There appears to be no immediate prospect of an end to the hostilities. What is certain is that the human population is likely to live with the misery of dislocation for some considerable time – while the damage to the historical fabric of the country is not just a tragedy for Syria but for our common, human heritage.