Perhaps the most infamous destruction of cultural heritage during wartime in our lifetime is that of ISIS militants and other groups in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.
ISIS destroyed part of the Roman amphitheater in Palmyra, a city in Homs – known as “The Home of Peace” – in January 2017 when it retook control from Russian and Syrian government forces. The piece of architecture dates to the second century, with aspects of Greek, Islamic, Persian, and Roman cultures all manifested within it.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science reckons that only the Ancient City of Damascus remained largely undamaged during the war, according to satellite images from the area, although much of the damage may not be visible on satellite imagery.
ISIS destroys cities and artifacts as a demonstration of oppression, abuse of power, and a ruthless and barbaric rejection of other cultures; all in the name of their version of Islam. ISIS ruined the rich beauty and culture of the entirety of Syria’s UNESCO World Heritage sites as well as over 150 Syrian cities between 2011 and 2015, according to the Antiques Coalition, a US-derived organization that tackles the illegal trade in antiquities.
ISIS’s destructive behaviour has not just ideological but also monetary objectives: ISIS pocketed over $200,000 in taxes from selling stolen antiquities through third-party dealers between 2014 and 2015. This was a core source of income for the militants, in turn spurring on the accumulation of more arms and explosives to eradicate Syrian heritage. Wartime destruction also fuels the global trade in illegal antiquities, which drip into black markets and galleries around the world.
Severe damage to cultural sites is however not exclusive to ISIS. Russian airstrikes in May 2016 for example, hit the St. Simeon Monastery, a World UNESCO Heritage Site which dates to 490 AD. Two rounds of five airstrikes in February that year caused serious damage to the 16th century Ma’arra Museum. When Turkish forces came to liberate their soldiers stationed to protect Suleyman Shah’s tomb, the group intentionally destroyed it ahead of ISIS.
Although Syria and Saudi Arabia are signatories to the Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, both are culprits of heritage destruction. Saudi Arabia bombed the Dhamar Regional Museum, while the Maarat al-Numan Mosaics Museum in the Idlib province suffered months of shelling when it became a military base for the Syrian army under Assad’s regime.
To curb this damage, a group of postgraduates from the University of Damascus and scientists from the European Centre of Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments (EKBMM) teamed up to study Syrian mosaics in a documentation and conservation venture. The group were involved in moving 3,000 square metres of mosaics dating from the 4th to 7th century to museums and storage areas in Syria.
Meanwhile, archaeologists Abdul Rahman Al-Yehiya and Ayman al-Nabu used a protective sheet on 1,600 square feet of ancient mosaics, and used sandbags to protect the Mosaics Museum itself.
The destruction of heritage and culture is not only a loss to Syria, but to society and future generations. Much of what was destroyed post-war cannot be salvaged, which further limits education and the ability of historians and anthropologists to understand the meaning of our heritage and identity. What cannot be salvaged reshapes heritage and culture into scarred remnants of the past.
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Image courtesy of David Holt via Flickr