Tag Archives: Homs

More on Syrian art and archaeological destruction

19 Feb

Originally from The Independent, by Patrick Cockburn, February 11th, 2014.  Reblogged from Tom Sawford’s  Byzantine Blog: Making Byzantium Live for People Today :

 
Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque: the rubble is all that remains of its minaret, which was blown up during fighting last year (Getty)

by Patrick Cockburn

First published in The Independent 11 Feb 2014

Islamic fundamentalists in Syria have started to destroy archaeological treasures such as Byzantine mosaics and Greek and Roman statues because their portrayal of human beings is contrary to their religious beliefs. The systematic destruction of antiquities may be the worst disaster to ancient monuments since the Taliban in Afghanistan dynamited the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001 for similar ideological reasons.

In mid-January the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), an al-Qa’ida-type movement controlling much of north-east Syria, blew up and destroyed a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa on the Euphrates. The official head of antiquities for Raqqa province, who has fled to Damascus and does not want his name published, told The Independent: “It happened between 12 and 15 days ago. A Turkish businessman had come to Raqqa to try to buy the mosaic. This alerted them [Isis] to its existence and they came and blew it up. It is completely lost.”

Other sites destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists include the reliefs carved at the Shash Hamdan, a Roman cemetery in Aleppo province. Also in the Aleppo countryside, statues carved out of the sides of a valley at al-Qatora have been deliberately targeted by gunfire and smashed into fragments.

Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, general director of antiquities and museums at the Ministry of Culture in Damascus, says that extreme Islamic iconoclasm puts many antiquities at risk. An expert on the Roman and early Christian periods in Syria, he says: “I am sure that if the crisis continues in Syria we shall have the destruction of all the crosses from the early Christian world, mosaics with mythological figures and thousands of Greek and Roman statues.”

Of the mosaic at Raqqa, discovered in 2007, he says: “It is really important because it was undamaged and is from the Byzantine period but employs Roman techniques.”

Syria has far more surviving archaeological sites and ancient monuments than almost any country in the world. These range from the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus with its magnificent eighth-century mosaics to the Bronze Age Ebla in Idlib province in north-west Syria, which flourished in the third and second millennia BC and where 20,000 cuneiform tablets were discovered. In eastern Syria on the upper Euphrates are the remains of the Dura-Europos, a Hellenistic city called “the Pompeii of the Syrian desert” where frescoes were found in an early synagogue. Not far away, close to the border with Iraq, are the remains of Mari, which has a unique example of a third-millennium BC royal palace.

Unfortunately, many of the most famous ancient sites in Syria are now held by the fundamentalist Islamic opposition and are thereby in danger. Professor Abdulkarim says that it is not just Isis but “Jabhat al-Nusra [the official affiliate of al-Qa’ida] and the other fundamentalists who are pretty much the same”.

He emphasises at the same time that he approaches his job of trying to preserve Syria’s heritage during the civil war from a politically neutral point of view. The civil war has inflicted heavy damage, notably in Aleppo, where the minaret of the Great Umayyad Mosque was destroyed along with seven medieval souks, or markets, with over 1,000 traditional shops burnt out.

Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque: the rubble is all that remains of its minaret, which was blown up during fighting last year. Homs Old City has suffered serious damage and is still held by the rebels, while the immense Crusader fortress of Krak des Chevaliers has been battered by government air strikes. The great church at St Simeon has been turned into a military training area and artillery range by rebels.

Syria’s museums are generally secure and moveable items have been taken elsewhere for safe-keeping. Museum staff say they saw what happened in Iraq after 2003 and moved quickly. A folk museum at Deir Atieh between Damascus and Homs was taken over, but the rebels were after old pistols and rifles on display that they intended to put to military use.

The most devastating and irreversible losses to Syria’s rich heritage of ancient cities and buildings are the result of looting. Much of this is local people looking for treasure, though in many cases they are obliterating the archaeological record by using bulldozers. Two looters were killed when they used a bulldozer to excavate a cave at Ebla, causing its roof to collapse.

What worries Professor Abdulkarim and his staff is that over the last year the looting has become large scale. He says that there is “a mafia from Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon hiring hundreds of people to strip sites”. Among what are known as the Dead Cities in Idlib province in northern Syria, once prosperous and then mysteriously abandoned 1,000 years ago, there are signs that thieves have brought in antiquities experts to advise them about the best places to dig, going by the orderly nature of the excavations.

Theft of antiquities is particularly bad in the far east of Syria at Mari where an armed gang  numbering 500 has taken over the site. An official report says that the looters have been focusing on “the Royal Palace, the southern gate, the public baths, Temple of Ishtar, the Temple of Dagan and the temple of the Goddess of Spring”.

Even worse is the situation at Dura-Europos where 300 people are excavating. A report by the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums says that efforts by local communities to stop the digging here have failed and heavy machinery is being used. The report says that illegal excavations have “led to the destruction of 80 per cent of the site as perpetrators are digging holes that can reach three metres in depth”.

For some Syrians, often well-armed in war-ravaged, impoverished areas, the looting of antiquities has become a full-time job. In great stretches of the country outside state control there is total disorder with banditry and kidnapping common. Rebel commanders, even if they wanted to, are not going to give priority to protecting ancient monuments.

Professor Abdulkarim complains that he has received little international help in preventing the looting of Syria’s rich heritage. The deliberate targeting by Isis and other jihadist groups of mosaics and statues seen as profane will accelerate the speed of destruction. Antiquities that have survived invasions and wars for 5,000 years may soon be rubble.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

From the Guardian: Syria’s heritage in ruins

29 Jan

Syria’s heritage in ruins: before-and-after pictures

The war in Syria has claimed more than 130,000 lives and, as these images reveal, it is also laying waste to its historic buildings and Unesco-listed sites:
Martin Chulov
Umayyad mosqueUmayyad mosque, Aleppo – pictured in 2012, before fighting destroyed it in 2013. Photograph: Alamy

They were sleepy tree-lined boulevards where people lived and worked, time-worn markets where they came to trade and exquisitely detailed mosques where, throughout the ages, they prayed.

All now stand in ruins, ravaged by a war that is not only killing generations of Syrians but also eradicating all around them, including sites that have stood since the dawn of civilisation. Across Syria, where a seemingly unstoppable war is about to enter a third year, a heritage built over 5,000 years or more is being steadily buried under rubble.

The Old Souk in Aleppo  The Old Souk, Aleppo. Above in 2007 and below in 2013. Photographs: Corbis, Stanley Greene/Noor/Eyevine

The destruction of towns and villages is regularly revealed by raw, and often revolting, videos uploaded to the web, which many people stopped watching long ago. Only seldomly do the shaky images reveal the damage being done beyond the battle – to ancient churches, stone Crusader fortresses and ruins that have stood firm during several millennia of insurrection and purge but are being withered away by this unforgiving war.Syria’s war has claimed more than 130,000 lives. At least two million of its citizens have fled into neighbouring states and more than two million others have been displaced within its borders. Industry and economy has long ground to a halt. Hope too has been on a relentless slide. Syria has six Unesco sites, representing at least 2,000 years of history. All have been damaged.Al-Kindi hospital in Aleppoal-Kindi hospital, Aleppo. Above in 2012 and below in 2013. Photographs: Getty
These before and after pictures show the old world order of Syria reflected for decades in history books; where people bought wares in marketplaces or mingled in mosque courtyards. They also reveal the shocking scale of devastation in all corners of the country and the damage done to Syria’s soul and identity.In Aleppo, one of the oldest covered marketplaces in the world is now in ruins; its maze of stone streets has been one of the most intense battlefields in the country for the past 18 months, bombed from above by air force jets and chipped away at ground level by close quarter battles that show no sentiment towards heritage. Those who dare raise their heads above the ruins, towards the ancient citadel that stands at the centre of the city, can also see damage to several of its walls.A street in Homs, Syria in 2011 and 2014        A street in Homs, in 2011 (above) and 2014 (below)Several hundred miles south, just west of Syria’s third city, Homs, one of the most important medieval castles in the world, Krak des Chevaliers, has taken an even heavier toll. Directly struck by shells fired from jets and artillery, the hilltop fortress now stands in partial ruin.Krak_des_Chevaliers_01Krak des Chevaliers (click)
Homs itself has fared even worse. A residential street, where cars not long ago parked under gum trees, has been destroyed. Life has ceased to function all around this part of the city, as it has in much of the heartland of the country. In one shot, a destroyed tank stands in the centre of a street. The old minaret next to it has also been blown up. This photograph is thought to have been taken in the countryside near Hama, to the north of Homs. But it could just as easily encapsulate the damage done in parts of the capital, Damascus, or in towns and villages from Idlib in the north to Deraa in the south, where the first stirrings of insurrection in March 2011 sparked the war.Omari Mosque in DeraaOmari mosque in Deraa. Above in 2011 and below in 2013. Photographs: Reuters
In May 2012, Emma Cunliffe, a Durham University PhD student, and member of the Global Heritage Network, prepared a report on the damage done to Syria’s heritage sites, detailing the tapestry of civilisations that helped build contemporary Syria.“Numerous bronze-age civilisations left their successive marks, including the Babylonians, the Assyrians and the Hittites,” she said. “They, in turn, were replaced by the Greeks, the Sasanians, the Persians, the Romans and the Arabs, many of whom chose Syrian cities as their capitals. The European Crusaders came and left some of the most impressive castles known and the Ottoman Empire also made its mark. All these cultures co-existed and conflicted, forming something new and special and found nowhere else in the world.”Souk Bab Antakya in AleppoSouq Bab Antakya, Aleppo. Above in 2009 and below after an attack in 2012. Photographs: Alamy, Reuters
Speaking this week, she said the threat to Syria’s heritage was now greater than ever. “Archaeological sites in Syria are often on the front lines of conflict and are experiencing heavy damage. Economic hardship and decreased security mean even sites away from the fighting are looted. This is denying not only Syrians but the world a rich heritage which can provide a source of income and inspiration in the future.”With little or no access to the country, satellite imagery is being used to track the destruction. The Global Heritage Fund’s director of Global Projects, Dan Thompson said: “All of the country’s world heritage sites have sustained damage, including the Unesco site cities, and a great many of the other monuments in the country have been damaged, destroyed or have been subject to severe looting..Umayyad Mosque in AleppoUmayyad mosque, Aleppo, pictured in 2012 (above) and 2013 (below). Photographs: Alamy, Corbis
“Shelling, shooting, heavy machinery installed in sites, and major looting are the leading causes of damage and destruction to the sites, although I would not discount that vandalism is also playing a part. As far as we know, no concrete action is being taken to combat the damage in the present moment.”
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