Preserving Syria's Historical Sites

The loss of human life during the Syrian conflict has been well documented. Less is known about the damage caused to Syria's historic sites. As Unesco's Director-General, Irina Bokova, warned in 2014, 'We are reaching the point of no return where Syria’s cultural heritage is concerned. The destruction of heritage represents a cultural haemorrhage in addition to the tragic humanitarian crisis and suffering experienced by the people of Syria.'

The Desecration of Cultural Sites

All of Syria's six Unesco World Heritage–listed sites – Aleppo's Old City, the Old City of Damascus, Palmyra, Bosra, the Crac des Chevaliers and a series of historic villages in northern Syria – were added by Unesco to its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 2013. All six have been extensively damaged during the conflict.

In Aleppo, the Great Umayyad Mosque has been reduced to rubble, and 121 historic buildings and 1500 shops have been destroyed in the covered souq. The citadel, surrounding buildings and many gates to the Old City have also been badly damaged, while the Yalbogha Hammam is, at the time of writing, occupied by military groups.

The Crac des Chevaliers, Syria's iconic Crusader-era castle, has been repeatedly hit in the fighting. Although its superstructure remains largely intact, the interior has been badly damaged. Looting and damage has also occurred in the ancient cities of Palmyra, Bosra and Apamea.

The core of the Old City in Damascus has thus far largely escaped serious damage. Some mosaics on the facade of the Umayyad Mosque have been damaged by mortar rounds, although the mosaics have since been repaired by the government's General Directorate of Archaeology and Museums. The national museum remains undamaged and, remarkably, open for visitors.

The 2015 occupation of Palmyra by Isis, and its return in late 2016 into early 2017, saw widespread looting and the deliberate destruction of important monuments in the ancient city, including the iconic tetrapylon, Roman theatre, Temple of Baalshamin and Arch of Triumph.

Beyond World Heritage Sites, Isis has repeatedly targeted Islamic shrines revered by locals, denouncing them as un-Islamic. It has also targeted Christian churches. The Armenian Genocide Martyrs' Memorial Church in Deir Al Zour, for example, was deliberately destroyed in 2014, along with its priceless library devoted to the events in Turkey at the end of WWI that are recognised by several reputable international bodies as a genocide against the Armenian people.

What's Being Done

In 2014, UN Security Council Resolution 2139 called on all parties to 'immediately end all violence which has led to human suffering in Syria, save Syria’s rich societal mosaic and cultural heritage, and take appropriate steps to ensure the protection of Syria’s World Heritage Sites'.

Although it's unable to physically prevent or monitor attacks on most threatened sites within Syria, Unesco has put in place measures to stop illegal trafficking in looted antiquities, working closely with Interpol and customs authorities in neighbouring countries and around the world.

In a section on its website, Unesco (www.unesco.org/new/en/safeguarding-syrian-cultural-heritage) also publishes comprehensive reports and photographic evidence of attacks on historic sites in a bid 'to monitor the situation of cultural heritage in Syria and help international cooperation to protect the country’s heritage'.

For its part, the Syrian government has launched a national campaign called 'Save Syria's History' and says that many of its workers have been killed trying to protect the country's ancient sites. The government's critics argue that indiscriminate bombing by the government itself has caused widespread damage to historic and cultural sites.

Arts

Syria has contributed some of the Arab world’s best-loved cultural figures, but cultural life fell into decline during the reign of Hafez Al Assad, thanks largely to government repression and a critical lack of government funding. Now writers, musicians and cinematographers are starting to make waves again.

Literature

Most Syrian writers to have made their name beyond Syria’s borders have done so from exile. The most famous contemporary example is Rafik Schami (b 1946), who left Syria in 1971. His A Hand Full of Stars (1990) is an outstanding work for teenagers, but The Dark Side of Love (2004) is his best-known (and most widely available) work.

Zakariya Tamir (b 1931), Syria’s master of the children’s story, deals with everyday city life marked by the frustration and despair born of social oppression. Having been virtually forced to leave Syria in 1980, he was awarded the Syrian Order of Merit in 2002. His Tigers on the Tenth Day and Other Stories (1978) is wonderful.

But not everyone was forced to leave. The Damascene Nizar Qabbani (1923–98) became one of the Arab world’s most beloved poets, credited with transforming formal Arabic poetry with the use of everyday language. He was adored in the 1950s for his love poems, and later for his expressions of the Arabs’ collective feelings of humiliation and outrage after the wars with Israel.

Of the noted writers who remained in Syria, the most celebrated and outspoken was Ulfat Idilbi (1912–2007), who wrote about the late Ottoman Empire and French Mandate and the drive for liberation and independence. Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet (1995) is critical of the mistreatment of women by their families, much of its anger stemming from Idilbi’s own experience of being married off at 16 to a man twice her age. Grandfather’s Tale (1997) is also worth tracking down.

Since the war began in 2011, writing has very much taken a back stage, although two excellent works worth seeking out are The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria (Alia Malek; 2016) and No Knives in the Kitchens of This City (Khaled Khalifa; 2016).

Music

Syria’s most famous musical star, Farid Al Atrache (1915–74), spent most of his career in Cairo and remains Syria’s most beloved musical export across the region. Sometimes called the ‘Arab Sinatra’, he was a highly accomplished oud player and composer who succeeded in updating Arabic music by blending it with Western scales and rhythms and the orchestration of the tango and waltz. His melodic improvisations on the oud (he’s still known as ‘King of the Oud’) and his mawal (a vocal improvisation) were the highlights of his live performances, and recordings of these are treasured. By the time of his death, he was considered – and still is by many – to be the premier male Arabic music performer.

After a quiet period on the Syrian music scene, there were signs of a revival before the conflict, thanks to the local success of albums by Kulna Sawa (All Together), Itar Shameh, Anas and Friends, Gene and InsaniT, and by the charismatic Lena Chamamian (Shamat). A sold-out Woodstock-type concert that toured the country in 2007 featured many of these bands. One of the biggest voices to have emerged from Syria in recent years is that of singer Omar Souleyman. Coming from deep up-country, near the Turkish border, his fast-paced renditions of local folk songs have morphed, thanks to a collaboration with Icelandic singer Björk, into a global sound.

Cinema

Cairo has long been regarded as the home of Arab cinema, a status now being challenged by the Gulf States. Syrian film-makers have long resented this, none more so than the country’s leading director, Nabil Maleh. Maleh’s The Extras (1993) captured the stifling repression of the Assad regime in its tale of an unmarried couple looking for a space to have an affair. In April 2011, Maleh and many other Syrian film-makers issued a call for solidarity by film-makers everywhere in protest at the fact that ‘peaceful Syrian citizens are being killed today for their demands of basic rights and liberties’.

Daily Life

In the current climate of civil war, daily life in Syria is primarily a battle for survival, with families torn apart and every day a fraught and perilous struggle for the basic necessities of existence. Before everything fell apart, family ties were extremely close, families were large, and extended families often lived together. Rural–urban migration over recent years meant that about half of the country's population lived in the cities.

Modern Syrian Life

Before the outbreak of conflict in 2011, and before the collapse of the country's social networks and education system, Syrians faced a number of challenges common to the region. On one level, prewar Syrians were well educated, with an overall literacy rate of around 80% (86% for men, 74% for women). School attendance was compulsory for children aged between six and 12, and there were four national public universities with combined enrolments of almost 200,000. At the same time, unemployment was far higher than the official rate of 10% suggested. Compounding the problem, wages were low – average government salaries were just US$300 per month and university graduates such as doctors rarely earned more than US$700. The consequence was that the country faced a serious 'brain drain', with many graduates heading overseas to find better-paying work. The obligatory 30 months' military service by all 18 year-old-men also played its part.