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Middle East and Africa

Syria: a Thousand-Year-Old Heritage Victim of War

Among the wreckage caused by bomb attacks but also by clandestine excavations and thefts there are also the destruction of the most important sites and monuments of the country. In this general chaos the local communities try to defend their past but also their economic future through tourism.

Ten thousand years of history, antique, Christian, Muslim, memory of humanity are crumble every day under the bombs, thefts, clandestine excavations, and the trading of works of art. The Syrian is a unique world patrimony (10,000 sites and works of art listed, 8 UNESCO sites five of which have been destroyed) eroded daily in the general oblivion. Paolo Matthiae, the archaeologist who discovered the city of Ebla and the thousand of cuneiform small boards launched from Rome an international campaign together with Francesco Rutelli in an attempt to save it: “we are dealing with a real universal patrimony. In Syria the first agricultural villages appeared on the banks of the Euphrates 10,000 years before Christ. It was there that humanity experimented the first models of cities far from the river valleys around the third millennium. It was there that the first alphabet was invented towards 1300 b.C., in which every sign corresponds to a sound and which revolutionized scripture. This was an important province for Rome so much so that Apollodorus of Damascus built the Trajan’s Forum, land of the first nascent Christianity, heir of Byzantium, and centre of the caliphate of Ommayadi, and Syria was for century a bridge between the Muslim East and the Christian West under the sign of tolerance. And it was one of the countries that was most open to archaeologists: there were 70 foreign missions without political distinction. There was also a mission by American researchers and Hebrews which was welcomed without any problems”.

 

 

Which are the most important damages?

 

 

The wreckage which struck the most important symbolic sites or monuments: the minaret of the Ommayadi mosque and the medieval city of Aleppo, the Krack of the Cavaliers of the XII century near Homs, the damage to the mosaics of the great mosque of Ommayadi in Damascus, in Maaloula, the Christian villages where they still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, damages we know of and speak of. But there are also less obvious destructions which are equally serious: the exponential multiplying of clandestine excavations: Apamea, the great antique city of Mari, the site of Doura Europos to name only a few. And then the thefts, especially in regional museums, by armed groups. Clandestine trade prospers. There is a more serious risk that the clandestine excavations so far generally done on an individual level have taken on an industrial dimension using heavy mechanical means which destroy everything like in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Since last May, UNESCO has warned bordering countries and it was possible to block at the Lebanese frontier a load of antiques. But we know how long, deserted and porous the frontiers are.

 

 

What can be done concretely?

 

 

The campaign launched by Francesco Rutelli includes, besides exhibition and reward, initiatives to support the surveillance of the sites and the museums using permanent and paid guardians. Some sites have been abandoned, and the mission places have been plundered with the loss of documentation. In Ebla, there were some clandestine and sporadic excavations but these were blocked immediately by the reaction of the inhabitants. And this is an important point: in the general chaos the local people try to assure a minimum of self-defence. They have understood that it is a question of defending their past and their identity but also their future economy through tourism. It is now necessary to organize an international collaboration and I am thinking especially of European countries to prepare and coordinate interventions of restoration and renovation as soon as the political situation allows it. It may not seem necessary today but it is necessary to prepare the rebirth of the Syrian patrimony.

 

 

What are the Syrian authorities doing?

 

 

The general management of antiquities and monuments has launched an appeal to all sides: not to use historical sites for military purposes to avoid them been bombed. It tries also to keep contact with its officials in the regions occupied by the rebels. It seems that in the region of Raqqa an antique mosaic has been bombed. So far destruction was the consequence of the war whereas now it risks to become an objective of intolerant religious groups, sometimes foreign, as was the case of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

 

 

Find out more: www.prioritacultura.it

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