The Arab world’s endangered heritage

Friday 01/01/2016
A statue stored under the direction of the Museums and Antiquities Department in Damascus, Syria.

Beirut - The list of World Heritage sites destroyed, damaged and endangered by war has grown alarmingly as conflicts and upheaval swept across the Middle East, home for the oldest civilisations in the world.

In 2015, the Islamic State (ISIS), which controls large stretches of Syria and Iraq, destroyed landmark sites with bulldozers and explo­sives, notably attacking the ancient cities of Palmyra in Syria and Nim­rud in Iraq.

The International Council of Mu­seums and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) warned that Greek and Roman antiquities and prehistoric artwork were also under threat from ISIS extremists in Libya and released a list of cultural treasures “in peril”.

Among the threatened artworks are: sculptures and mausoleum carvings in Cyrene, a one-time Greek colony; the Roman-era trad­ing centre of Sabratha; and a desert region home to stone paintings or carvings dating back 12,000 years. The council said it had not regis­tered large-scale destruction in Lib­ya “aimed at clearing all signs of the past” but it had noted theft, pillag­ing and destruction, notably of Sufi mosques near Tripoli.

The violence in Yemen between Houthi rebels and forces loyal to President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has caused “serious damage” to the Old City of Sana’a, which has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years. The 16th-century Old Walled City of Shibam, one of Yemen’s four World Heritage sites — has not yet been damaged but UN officials fear it is under threat.

However, the most prominent victims “of the cultural carnage” in 2015 occurred in Syria and Iraq. The main damaged sites were:

• Syria

Palmyra, a city-state that thrived for centuries in the desert east of Damascus as an oasis and stop for caravans on the Silk Road. Part of the Roman empire, Palmyra reached its peak in the late third century, when it was ruled by Queen Zenobia and briefly rebelled against Rome. Zenobia failed and Palmyra was re­conquered and destroyed by Roman armies in 273AD. With its colonnad­ed avenues and impressive temples, in modern times it became one of Syria’s biggest tourist destinations.

ISIS seized the modern town of Palmyra and the nearby ancient ruins in May. The militants ini­tially promised to leave the site’s columns and temples untouched but those promises were empty. The group successively destroyed the 1,900-year-old Temple of Baal Shamin, dedicated to a Phoenician storm god, and the Temple of Baal.

Mari, in Syria’s eastern Deir ez- Zor province, is an ancient Semitic city that flourished in the Bronze Age between 3000-1600BC. Archae­ologists discovered palaces, temples and extensive archives written on clay tablets that shed light on the early days of civilisation in the re­gion. According to reports from lo­cals and satellite imagery, the site, especially the royal palace, is being systematically looted.

Apamea, a rich Roman-era trading city, has been looted since the be­ginning of Syria’s civil war, even be­fore ISIS appeared. Satellite imagery shows dozens of pits across the site; previously unknown Roman mosa­ics have reportedly been excavated and removed for sale. ISIS is said to take a cut from sales of ancient ar­tefacts.

Mar Elian Monastery. The Chris­tian monastery was captured in August, when ISIS seized the Syrian town of al-Qaryatayn near Palmyra. Dedicated to a fourth-century saint, it was an important pilgrimage site and sheltered hundreds of Syrian Christians. Bulldozers were report­edly used to topple its walls and ISIS posted pictures of the destruction on Twitter.

Dura-Europos, a Greek settle­ment on the Euphrates not far from Syria’s border with Iraq, was one of Rome’s easternmost outposts. It included the world’s oldest known Christian church, a beautifully decorated synagogue and many temples and Roman-era build­ings. Satellite imagery shows a cratered landscape inside the city’s mud-brick walls, evidence of widespread destruction by looters.

• Iraq

Nimrud, near the northern city of Mosul, was the first Assyr­ian capital, founded 3,200 years ago. Its rich decoration reflected the empire’s power and wealth. The site was first excavated in the 1840s by British archae­ologists, who sent dozens of its massive stone sculptures to mu­seums around the world. Many originals remained in Iraq. ISIS bulldozed parts of the site, causing extensive damage inside the citadel. Some of the city was never uncovered and remains underground.

Hatra was built in the third centu­ry BC, as the capital of an independ­ent kingdom on the outskirts of the Roman empire. Its combination of Greek- and Roman-influenced ar­chitecture and Eastern features tes­tify to its prominence as a trading centre on the Silk Road. Hatra was named a World Heritage site in 1985. A video released by ISIS in April 2015 showed militants using sledge­hammers and automatic weapons to destroy sculptures in several of the site’s largest buildings.

Nineveh was among the capitals of Ancient Assyria, which occupied a vast stretch of the ancient world from 900-600BC. Nineveh flour­ished under the Assyrian emperor Sennacherib around 700BC. At one point, it was the largest city in the world. Its location on the outskirts of Mosul put it in ISIS’s cross hairs when the group took over the city in 2014. Many of the site’s sculptures were housed in the Mosul Museum and some were damaged during a rampage through the museum. Stat­ues of half-humans, half-animals called lamassus on Nineveh’s ancient Nirgal Gate were smashed with sledgeham­mers.

Mar Behnam Monastery. Estab­lished in the fourth century, the mon­astery was dedi­cated to an early Christian saint. The site, maintained since the late 1800s by Syriac Catholic monks, survived the Mongol hordes in the 1200s but fell to ISIS in March. The extrem­ists used explosives to destroy the saint’s tomb and its elaborate carv­ings and decorations.

Mosque of the Prophet Yunus was dedicated to the biblical fig­ure Jonah, considered a prophet by many Muslims but ISIS adheres to an interpretation of Islam that sees veneration of prophets such as Jo­nah as forbidden. On July 24th, ISIS fighters evacuated the mosque and demolished it with explosives. Like many of Iraq’s sites, the mosque was a layer cake of history, built on top of a Christian church that in turn had been built on one of the two mounds that made up the Assyrian city of Nineveh.

Imam Dur Mausoleum, not far from the city of Samarra, was a magnificent specimen of medieval Islamic architecture and decoration. It was blown up by ISIS.