The city of Aleppo, Syria, was once the cultural jewel of the Ottoman Empire and the last outpost of Silk Road trade route to the west. Today, however, the historic city is at the heart of the Syrian civil war — bombarded with missiles and bombs, and suffering the loss of its historic treasures, such as the home of the ancient 700 Dead Cities, which have been destroyed or looted.
Among reports of the looting, there are also reports of Syrian rebels link to al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra front, that are destroying and vandalising ancient ruins. Several ancient Jewish mausoleums in Aleppo were damaged by the extremist group.
Fighting between the government and rebel forces has intensified in the last month. And in a new twist, many revolutionary protesters have joined forces with the government to fight off mercenaries and al-Qaeda linked rebel groups who are being blamed for taking the Syrian uprising and turning it into a devastating civil war.
According to anti-government activists of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 25 people were killed in Aleppo on Sunday. Sources on the ground have claimed that the heavily populated area has endured eight straight days of intense government bombardment and a rebel suicide car bombing, allegedly by the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra front rebel group, which killed at least 10 people in the central province of Homs.
Even as preparations are being made for internationally sponsored peace talks scheduled for late January, violence in Syria appears, if anything, to have escalated in the past month. Rebel and government groups have each been accused of massacring civilians, and the government has stepped up air attacks on Aleppo, with barrages of improvised “barrel bombs” packed with high explosives that activists say have killed more than 200 people.
As all sides continue to kill civilians and ravage cities with bombs and missiles on the eve of peace talks – the question arises of what will be left of the ancient civilization of Aleppo if a peace accord is struck.
Historically, Aleppo has been at the center of many bloody battles. It has been sacked, destroyed and left in ruins many times over. When Tamerlane, an Islamic ruler, and his army marched on Aleppo in the 1400s, he reportedly left a pile of 20,000 severed heads outside the city walls.
Aleppo has also been ruled by the Byzantines and the Mongols — more than once. But it was politics with the Europeans that led to Aleppo losing trade. In the 1800s, the French government chose Damascus as its main city for trade and finance. With the building of the Suez Canal in 1869, the majority of trade was taken by Turkey, spelling the end of the Silk Road. Although the city was in decline, it still preserved many of its medieval treasures and traditions for future generations, but today this is under threat.
Syria’s heritage lost
«The situation of Syria’s heritage today is catastrophic,» said 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.»
Currently, Aleppo stands in ruins. Last year, Aleppo’s Ottoman treasure, the Souk al-Madina, a traditional Silk Road souk of warehouses filled with soaps, silks, spices, precious metals and ceramics – was burnt to ashes in a battle for the city. But that’s not all this war has destroyed.
The Citadel of Aleppo, a medieval fortress, was also bombarded with shells from government artillery. This fortress contains what historians believe to be a 5,000-year-old temple and many fear that the fighting, which has already destroyed the medieval iron gates, has spread inside the temple.
Even more distressing is the news that the Dead Cities are being used as a battlefield. Scattered around Aleppo are up to 700 ruins known as the Dead cities. Dating back to the first century A.D. to the eighth, they are a unique record of life in ancient times. But now they serve as a field for artillery exchanges that inflict significant damage on the ruins.
In many cases, armed rebels have sought sanctuary behind the thick walls of ancient castles, only to find that the Syrian military have not hesitated to blast away at these historical buildings to kill rebels. The hundreds of long-abandoned Graeco-Roman towns that litter the countryside outside Aleppo, which once formed the heart of ancient Syria, is now exposed to missile attacks and heavy artillery.
Syrian troops have occupied the Castle of Ibn Maan above the Roman city of Palmyra and stationed tanks and armored vehicles in the Valley of the Tombs. There are also reports that government forces have dug a deep defensive trench within the Roman ruins.
This summer, in a bid to expose the destruction and looting of Syrian heritage, the United Nations’ World Heritage Committee decided to classify the six World Heritage sites of Syria as endangered.
The U.N. and conservationists are not only concerned with the destruction of ancient sites, but also worried about rebels looting them and selling them for arms. The U.N. warns that Syria’s historical sites face a new and more dangerous threat: a sophisticated network of smugglers, dealers and members of the cash-strapped insurgency — looking to sell their country’s cultural riches.
“In light of previous experiences in situations of conflict, with respect to cultural heritage, the risk of looting and illicit trafficking of Syrian cultural objects appears to be high,” said Anna Paolini, head of the Jordan office of UNESCO.
The extent of the trade is unknown because of difficulties accessing historical sites in the war-torn country.
Although the rebel Free Syrian Army has repeatedly stressed its commitment to the protection of heritage sites, there are reports that some rebel factions are digging up antiquities and illegally selling them for arms. Some reports say that certain artifacts command a price of $50,000 on the black market.
According to sources in the rebels army, Jordan has emerged as the primary stop for the goods, and there are also active markets in Turkey and Lebanon. Reports say rebels smuggle artifacts into Jordan using refugees.
The terrible human cost of this war has, of course, outweighed the debate about the destruction and looting of historical treasures. But the destruction and plundering of ancient heritage will deprive future generations of their birthright and culture.