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January 14, 2014 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1051

Syrian Heritage Sites, Holy Places Destroyed In Civil War

January 14, 2014 | By N. Mozes
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1051

Introduction

The war raging in Syria has recently passed its thousandth day with over 120,000 people killed, hundreds of thousands wounded, and millions left homeless. The war has destroyed the country's social and economic infrastructure and has also caused irreversible damage to some of the country's most famous sites, which are included in UNESCO's list of world heritage sites, such as the old cities of Damascus and Aleppo. On July 2, 2013, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova expressed deep concern for Syria's cultural heritage, noting that its loss represented a loss for all mankind.[1] Amnesty International's senior crisis response advisor Donatella Rovera said in August 2013 during a visit to Aleppo: "The city is completely destroyed, its inhabitants are fleeing. The danger that we warned of concerning the heritage sites has now materialized."[2] In addition, hundreds of mosques and churches, as well as statues of historic Muslim leaders, have been destroyed either by the Assad regime or by its opponents, and large-scale theft and plunder of antiquities has been reported. Some of the damage to heritage sites and places of worship and the plunder of antiquities was the work of radical Islamic groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat Al-Nusra, who are ideologically motivated to destroy churches and statues.

Not surprisingly, as part of the propaganda war between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition, each side blames the other the damage and plunder of heritage sites and places of worship.

This report will survey this aspect of the war taking place in Syria:

Places Of Worship Destroyed

Mosques

As soon as the uprising in Syria began, mosques, like public squares, became sites of clashes between the regime forces and demonstrators who used them as a departure point for many anti-regime demonstrations and as places of refuge. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an opposition body, estimates that about 1,450 mosques were damaged or destroyed throughout the country[3] during the fighting, including historic mosques. The most famous of these is Aleppo's Umayyad mosque dating from the eighth century. Aleppo's old city and this mosque were at the epicenter of fighting between the insurgents and the regime, and according to Donatella Rovera, Amnesty's senior crisis response advisor, who visited Aleppo in August 2013, "the city was completely destroyed".[4] The opposition claims that regime forces booby-trapped the eastern part of the wall surrounding the mosque and detonated a large part of the mosque itself.[5] According to reports the site's library and minaret were destroyed.[6]


Aleppo's Umayyad mosque before the fighting (image: al-sharq.com, October 15, 2011)


The mosque in its present state (images:aksalser.com, March 2, 2013; alwatanalarabi.com, November 22, 2013)

Damascus' eighth-century Umayyad mosque was also damaged by artillery shells, although less severely. Located in Damascus' old city, which is included in UNESCO's list of world heritage sites, this mosque is considered one of the seven wonders of Islam and it is the fourth most famous mosque following the great mosques of Mecca and Medina and Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. According to reports, the western fa├žade of the Umayyad mosque's patio was damaged by an artillery shell that destroyed part of the mosaic on the site's great gate.[7]


The Umayyad mosque in Damascus and the damaged mosaic (images: digitalartsphotography.com; all4syria.net, November 20, 2013)

Another historic building damaged in the fighting is Homs' Khalid Ibn Al-Walid Mosque, built in the 19th century on the ruins of a 13th century mosque.


The Khalid Ibn Al-Walid Mosque before and after being hit by an artillery shell (images:aksaler.com, July 7, 2013; radiosawa.com, April 17, 2013)

According to the locals, regime and Hizbullah forces that took control of the site seized everything that was in it, including an alms box. Their actions also had a sectarian aspect, as they converted the Sunni mosque into a Shi'ite one and began sounding the Shi'ite version of the call for prayer from its minarets, in order to emphasize their control over the area and provoke the locals. It was also reported that regime and Hizbullah forces wrote Shi'ite slogans on the walls of Sunni mosques in the city of Homs.[8]

Christian Sites

Many Christian sites were also damaged during the fighting, by both sides. According to reports, one of the buildings damaged is the Umm Al-Zenar church in Homs, built in the first century.[9] Regime forces reportedly transformed the Cherubim Monastery, located in the mountains above Damascus, into an army base.[10]


Gate of the Umm Al-Zenar church in Homs (image: dampress.net)

In areas controlled by radical Islamic organizations such as ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra, deliberate damage to Christian symbols has been reported. In the town of Al-Raqqa, ISIS reportedly destroyed and burned the contents of two of the town's churches, including holy books, and removed the crosses from the rooftops, replacing it with the ISIS flag.[11] Another report claimed that the ISIS had transformed the town's Armenian Church into a da'wa center.[12]


The Armenian Orthodox Al-Shuhada church in Al-Raqqa was transformed into an ISIS da'wa center (image: abouna.org, April 12, 2013)

According to a report of the Syrian news agency SANA, Jabhat Al-Nusra also burned down the Syriac church in Deir Al-Zor.[13]


The Syriac church in Deir Al-Zor (abouna.org, September 27, 2013)

Armed Islamists who entered the town of Maloula in September 2013 reportedly destroyed statues and icons in the town's convent and kidnapped 12 nuns.[14] They also tried to smash the statue of the Virgin overlooking the town.[15]

Synagogues

One of the world's most ancient synagogues is located in Damascus' Jobar neighborhood. During the uprising, the synagogue was damaged by artillery shells, and opposition and regime forces accuse each other of stealing antiquities from the site.[16]

Ancient Buildings And Archeological Sites

Nor were archaeological treasures spared damage, by either side, including the 11th century Citadel of Damascus, in the northwest section of Damascus' old city wall, which was added in 1979 to the UNESCO list of world heritage sites, and the ancient town of Palmyra in eastern Syria, which sustained severe damage and was recently added to UNESCO's list of sites in danger.


Building in Palmyra damaged by artillery shells (image: sharek.aljazeera.net/node/62278)

Another historic site endangered by repeated artillery shelling is the Crusader Al-Hassan Castle (Krak des Chevaliers) in Homs, considered one of the world's most important medieval monuments.


Krak des Chevaliers in Homs; the fort interior following shelling (images: aksalser.com; zaman-alwsl.net, October 22, 2013)

Antiquities Theft

In addition to the destruction of ancient buildings, there have been numerous reports about piratical digs and antiquity theft at archaeological sites, including sites in Palmyra; Al-Raqqa in northern Syria, which is controlled by the ISIS;[17] the Christian village of Maloula, which is controlled by Jabhat Al-Nusra;[18] and the Christian village of Sadad in the Homs district.[19] The UNESCO chairman recently warned that this looting threatens the Syrian heritage.[20]

Destruction Of Statues

According to reports, fighters from radical Islamic organizations such as ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra have destroyed statues of historic Muslim figures in areas they control claiming that statues violate Islamic strictures. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that the statue of 'Abbasid caliph Haroun Al-Rashid (763-809) in the town of Al-Raqqa was smashed and thrown to the ground. Local residents claimed that ISIS members were responsible for the deed "after promising that they would destroy all the town's statues". [21]


Shattered statue of Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid (image: Al-Hayat, London, October 10, 2013)

The statue of 'Abbasid poet Abul 'Ala Al-Ma'arri was shattered in the town of Maaret Al-Numan south of Idlib by Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters.[22]

*N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] Unesco.org, July 2, 2013.

[2] Syria-news.com, August 7, 2013.

[3] Other estimates talk of 3000 mosques. Etilaf.org, November 30, 2013.

[4] Syria-news.com, August 7, 2013.

[5] Alarabiya.net, November 21, 2013.

[6] SANA (Syria), April 25, 2013; syria-news.com, August 7, 2013.

[7] All4syria.info, November 20, 2013.

[8] Zamanalwsl.net, January 6, 2014.

[9] Abouna.org, January 6, 2014.

[10] All4syria.info, November 11, 2013.

[11] Alarabia.net, December 26, 2013; Aranews.org, October 23, 2013.

[12] Abouna.org, April 12, 2013.

[13] SANA (Syria), June 20, 2013.

[14] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), December 3, 2013.

[15] Champress.net, September 10, 2013.

[16] Almodon.com, September 8, 2013; Damaspost.com, March 28, 2013.

[17] Now.mmedia.me, November 4, 2013.

[18] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), December 12, 2013.

[19] All4syria.net, November 3, 2013.

[20] Dp-news.com December 14, 2013.

[21] Al-Hayat (London), October 4, 2013.

[22] Champress.net, October 30, 2013.

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