Blog Post

Heritage in the Crosshairs

The evolving tragedy in Syria has a deep cultural, as well as a humanitarian, dimension. Aleppo, which has been mercilessly shelled and bombed for the last two weeks, is one of the world’s greatest cultural ensembles, a place where civilizations from the Hittites to the Ottomans left their mark. Within the narrow streets of its Old City, life is virtually unchanged since medieval times. Its ancient souk is considered to be the most authentic Arab bazaar in the Middle East. The Citadel, towering over the city, bears witness to thousands of years of history. These places form the very matrix of life in the city, the foundation of its citizens’ identity and history.

Since the 1990s, Aleppo has been the site of vigorous international preservation efforts, focused on the Aleppo Citadel, with its many layers of architectural history. The culmination of this work was the exciting discovery by a German-Syrian archaeological team of the 5,000-year-old Temple of the Storm God, with a magnificent monumental frieze of relief sculpture from the time of the Hittites. The discovery validates Aleppo’s standing as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world.

The conservation of extraordinary temple was well under way when work was forced to stop last year, with the beginning of civil unrest. Several years of excavation and stabilization were covered with sandbags and a flimsy corrugated tin roof. As things stand, anything could happen to the Citadel, which occupies a natural hillock that has been weakened over time by earthquakes and erosion. Last weekend the Citadel’s massive iron doors, dating from 1211, were blown away by a missile attack, and its wooden doors with iron fittings were also shattered, raising concerns about looting. A struggle is under way for control of the Citadel. In this struggle, damage to the Temple of the Storm God would be irreversible.

In times of conflict, traditional ways of protecting cultural sites and resources are not effective. Armed forces rarely protect or even respect museums and archaeological sites. Historic towers and fortifications are used as strategic objectives. Even the signs posted on monuments to identify and shield them from conflict have been known to transform them into flashpoints of culturally motivated violence.

The United Nations established protocols in 1954 to prevent the world’s cultural heritage from falling prey to destruction in times of war. The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict calls on all nations to designate and protect cultural property from conflict. Syria ratified the Hague Convention in 1958, and also ratified the World Heritage convention in 1975, and placed the Old City of Aleppo on the World Heritage list in 1986. The country has a long history of pride and concern for its cultural heritage. Yet none of this seems to carry any weight in the evolving conflict, and nothing can be done to force the government to abide by its own humanitarian and cultural commitments.

With the escalating human toll, the survival of monuments may seem to be an extraneous issue. Yet cultural heritage is a mainstay of life, a civic and economic asset now and in the future. Every country in the world needs such touchstones. Yet no country seems to be prepared or able to protect them in times of conflict.

The international community must do more to address this situation. To be effective, the Hague Convention provision of Special Protection should be invoked before a conflict escalates. The more than 120 countries that have ratified it, including the United States, should call for stronger measures to prevent its violation. Military policy should prohibit the use of major heritage sites as strategic points of wartime activity. In the immediate aftermath of conflict, neutral bodies should sequester and protect cultural sites from further damage. Today, not one of these procedures is in place.

We can only hope against the odds for the survival of Aleppo and its people. Whatever happens there, we need to focus afterwards on how the destruction of the world’s heritage can be avoided in future conflicts.