Sunday, August 5, 2012

Syria's ancient treasures pulverised

Dust to dust: The mosque at Azaz, north of Aleppo, last week.

IoS exclusive: The nation's extraordinarily rich historical heritage is falling victim to the looting of war

By Robert Fisk

"The priceless treasures of Syria's history – of Crusader castles, ancient mosques and churches, Roman mosaics, the renowned "Dead Cities" of the north and museums stuffed with antiquities – have fallen prey to looters and destruction by armed rebels and government militias as fighting envelops the country. While the monuments and museums of the two great cities of Damascus and Aleppo have so far largely been spared, reports from across Syria tell of irreparable damage to heritage sites that have no equal in the Middle East. Even the magnificent castle of Krak des Chevaliers – described by Lawrence of Arabia as "perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world" and which Saladin could not capture – has been shelled by the Syrian army, damaging the Crusader chapel inside.....

"The situation of Syria's heritage today is catastrophic," according to Joanne Farchakh, a Lebanese archaeologist who also investigated the destruction and plundering of Iraq's historical treasures after 2003, and helped the Baghdad museum to reclaim some of its stolen artifacts. "One of the problems is that for 10 years before the war, the Syrian regime established 25 cultural museums all over the country to encourage tourism and to keep valuable objects on these sites – many placed stone monuments in outside gardens, partly to prove that the regime was strong enough to protect them. Now the Homs museum has been looted – by rebels and by government militias, who knows? – and antique dealers are telling me that the markets of Jordan and Turkey are flooded with artifacts from Syria."

There is, of course, a moral question about our concern for the destruction of the treasures of history. Common humanity suggests that the death of a single Syrian child amid the 19,000 fatalities of Syria's tragedy must surely carry more weight than the plundering and erasure of three thousand years of civilisation. True. But the pulverisation and theft of whole cities of history deprives future generations – in their millions – of their birthright and of the seeds of their own lives. Syria has always been known as "the Land of Civilisations" – Damascus and Aleppo are among the world's oldest inhabited cities and Syria is the birthplace of agrarian society – and the terrible conflict now overwhelming the country will deprive us and our descendants of this narrative for ever......"

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