When we think of war, we naturally and understandably measure losses in lives, but its also important to note that war also destroys history and cultural heritage, which is why an archaeologist from Syria still mourns the destruction of some of his country’s greatest treasures.
The Syrian civil war and terrorism by ISIS hit the Middle Eastern nation like two storms colliding to create a super-cell that forced thousands to flee their homeland, including archaeologists, who were especially targeted by the terrorist group.
In 2015, Khaled al-Asaad, the head of antiquities at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra, suffered brutal torture by ISIS before they beheaded him for refusing to tell them the location of hidden artifacts that they could destroy or sell to further their agenda.
They have destroyed artifacts and relics across Iraq and Syria that had previously survived thousands of years of invasions and war, such as a human headed bull, the Assyrian lion statues in Raqqa, and ancient places of worship, all to strike fear into the population.
It’s truly a tragedy to watch these priceless artifacts and the sites they came from be destroyed.
Lubna Omar, an archaeologist who fled Syria to save his life, is also devastated by the destruction, and wrote an op-ed about how heartbreaking it is that he remains helpless to do anything to stop it.
“When war broke out in 2011, archaeological excavations were suspended, and all international teams left the country,” he began.
“Images and videos of the destruction of cultural heritage sites started to circulate on news and social media sites. The Syrian war has not just interrupted the research that would help fill out the picture of early human culture; combatants are actively wrecking earlier finds.”
It take years to excavate most sites, and many monuments and artifacts are unique pieces that cannot be replaced. Omar’s field of expertise is finding and analyzing ancient animal bones, but he still feels the great loss of these sites all the same.
“Before the uprising in Syria, I worked as a zooarchaeologist, analyzing ancient animal bones from sites that date back to the Bronze Age,” he wrote.
“I am one of a handful of experts in this field who is originally from the Middle East. In my research, I focused on what animal bone fragments could tell us about the people living in these ancient urban centers and how they used animals.”
As the cradle of civilization, the Middle East is a particularly important and interesting place for archaeologists to explore and understand, giving us insights into human development and history as our species spread around the world.
“It’s evident the Fertile Crescent played a vital role as a path and a home for humans and their ancestors for a very long time,” Omar continued. “It continues to host waves of communities that invented and mastered skills and techniques which were essential for the survival of our species.”
He then went on to describe the horrific destruction war has perpetrated in his homeland.
After the spring of 2011, archaeologists stopped working in Syria. Scientists aren’t uncovering new sites or digging deeper into the long human history of this region.
Artifacts and sites are being destroyed. Outrageous looting and smuggling of artifacts are still taking place in different parts of the country. The looting of antiquities became an economic tool for the Islamic State group to maintain its supremacy in the northern part of the country.
Many of the fighting factions in Syria took advantage of the rich cultural properties and smuggled what they could to Western markets and collectors. Consequently, museums shut down and were barricaded. Still many of them were targeted during the armed conflict, and they severely suffered.
“Some sites – such as Crac des Chevaliers castle and Aleppo’s ancient monuments – were caught under fire between the regime forces and the opposition,” Omar wrote. “As the international community recognized the destruction of world heritage and the value of Syrian archaeology in terms of global history, fighting groups realized they could use these sites as political pawns. While the Russian Orchestra performed at the ancient amphitheater after “liberating” Palmyra from the Islamic State group in 2016, IS retaliated when they recaptured the city in 2017 by destroying the facade of the monument.”
Built in 1031, Crac des Chevaliers castle is one of the most revered Medieval castles in the world that had been used during the Crusades, which began in 1099.
Thankfully, it still stands despite minor damage.
Palmyra, however, did not get so lucky. ISIS blew up the ruins of an ancient temple, forever erasing a treasured piece of Syria’s history and culture.
“And this chaos has been in place for the last eight years,” Omar stressed.
ISIS and the civil war not only destroyed or damaged archaeological sites, they significantly harmed the livelihood of archaeologists who are now jobless.
“Most of this group of ambitious young archaeologists – including me – were forced to flee the country,” Omar said.
“Though currently safe from the physical danger, we still face a harsh professional reality. Competing in a fierce job market, we can only promise that someday we’ll be able to travel and resume our work back where we used to belong.”
Despite the danger, Syrians are trying to unite to save or restore whatever they can, which lifts Omar’s spirits and gives him hope that he can one day return to help restore the history lost and make new discoveries in his homeland.
Many Syrians in exile are still participating in initiatives such as Syrians for Heritage, trying to protect and restore artifacts and museums throughout the country and attempting to keep Syrian cultural heritage alive in our diaspora. I believe this mission could be successful – but only with genuine support for the Syrian people and not just their ruins.
The world is trying to help with this effort as museums and experts around the globe seek to restore artifacts and monuments or at least make exact replicas of them. It’s not quite the same, but it’s something.
What’s happening in Syria is a prime example of why we must end war. The artifacts and monuments of our history are just as important in Syria as they are in other countries. Just imagine if war destroyed the Colosseum in Rome or Stonehenge in the United Kingdom. When Notre Dame burned in Paris, the world mourned the damage done. And so we must mourn the artifacts lost by war no matter where they are being destroyed and work tirelessly until such destruction never happens again. Because when we lose our history, we lose ourselves.
Featured Image: YouTube screenshot