The Race to Save Syria's Archaeological Treasures
The Race to Save Syria's Archaeological Treasures
We tread carefully, as if tiptoeing around the scene of a crime, through a series of beautiful arches into the narrow alleys of the ancient Souk al-Medina, which at some eight miles long is one of the most glorious covered markets in the entire Middle East, selling everything from soap and spices to jewelry, shoes, ceramics and textiles. Merchants from Europe and China and Iran, from Iraq and Egypt, have met here in Aleppo, Syria, to sell their wares since the 13th century. For just as long travelers have immersed themselves in the ornamented Turkish baths, or hammam. The last time I ambled around the market, five years ago, I could barely move amid the bustle.
Now it’s an empty wasteland, and a war zone. The entrails of old buildings—tangles of concrete and metal corsetry—poke down from ceilings or hang limply out of their sides. Many have been broken by mortars or toasted into blackened husks by the fires that followed. Some of the old stone arches we pass through look about to collapse. Holes have been blown in the wall of an old mosque, and its dome has crumbled like deflated pastry. In over an hour walking the length of the market, the only nonmilitary inhabitants I see are two roosters, stepping in single file and picking carefully through the broken glass. Apart from mortar shells thumping to the ground elsewhere in the Old City and the occasional round of gunfire, there is little sound but the lurch and creak of steel and upended masonry, like sinister wind chimes.
The souk is within the walls of Aleppo’s historic city center, one of six locations in Syria listed as World Heritage Sites by Unesco. Before largely peaceful protests in 2011 against the autocratic Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were met with government violence and devolved into a devastating civil war, killing at least a quarter of a million people and displacing millions so far, the country was one of the most beautiful on earth. Much of its enchantment came from its plentiful antiquity, which wasn’t fenced off as in European capitals but lay unceremoniously around—part of the living, breathing texture of everyday life. The country, at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, boasts tens of thousands of sites of archaeological interest, from the ruins of our earliest civilizations to Crusader-era fortifications and wonders of Islamic worship and art.
And then there is the Islamic State, or ISIS, the terrorist group whose conquering of vast swaths of territory first in Syria and then in Iraq has turned the destruction of heritage into a new kind of historical tragedy. As seen in videos gleefully disseminated online by its infamous propaganda wing, ISIS militants have attacked priceless artifacts with jackhammers, rampaged through museum galleries housing historically unique collections, and exploded sites in territory they control for scarifying effect. Last May, hundreds of ISIS fighters overran another Unesco site in Syria, the ancient city of Palmyra, renowned for its Roman-era ruins.
Faced with the monumental scale of the country’s archaeological losses, it would be easy to succumb to fatalism. That would be wrong. Plenty has been saved, and there is more that can still be done. Behind the scenes, bands of men and women are working hard to move antiquities out of harm’s way, support buildings in distress and document the damage in the hope of doing something about it later on. As a British-Irish journalist long fascinated by Syria, I’d been covering the war since its beginning: sometimes with visas from the Syrian regime, other times embedded with anti-government rebel forces in the country’s north. Now I was determined to survey firsthand the destruction of cultural property, so I requested permission from the Syrian regime to go to Aleppo and meet with leading figures in the fight against it; to my surprise, the authorities said yes.
Aleppo is Syria’s largest city, and its Old City, for three years a battleground between the Syrian Army and armed rebels, has seen some of the most extensive archaeological destruction. One thousand of the souk’s old market stalls and 140 historic buildings in the rest of the Old City have been damaged beyond repair. I am accompanied by a military chaperon, and twice we are forced into a sprint to avoid the attentions of a sniper. The government, which retook the Old City from rebel groups early in 2014, blames rebel militias for the destruction here, but this is disingenuous. Like many of Syria’s historic sites, the Old City’s narrow crannies and natural fortifications make good cover, and neither side has turned down the opportunity to use the place for military advantage. Sandbags are piled high at the intersections, which are now military outposts. Trapdoors, which perhaps once led to rebel tunnels, are everywhere. So are improvised barriers; at certain points the boulders are piled so high in front of us that we have to turn back.
In the residential quarter almost everything we walk past is beyond repair; whole five-story homes have been gutted by fire, their beams bent double under the stress. An old stone mansion built into the souk has been reduced to thick lumps of masonry, each a few feet long and resembling a giant brick; only the metal door, emblazoned with a nameplate, is still standing. A mosque dating from the Mamluk Sultanate, in the Middle Ages, is blackened, with fresh cracks in its side; in the library, books have been thrown onto the floor; empty shelves suggest that others are missing. Everything left behind is coated in soot.
Photo: A human-headed winged bull from the eighth century B.C. Assyrian royal palace in Khorsabad. ISIS razed the city’s ruins last year.