Treasures of human heritage disappearing fast in Syria

opinion February 26, 2014 00:00

By Chandra Muzaffar

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A tragic consequence of the three-year war in Syria has been the destruction of globally significant architectural sites and the loss of historical treasures of immense importance. Severe damage has been caused to all six world heritage sites in the count

In January 2013, the rebel group Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, destroyed a 6th-century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa. According to Patrick Cockburn of the UK’s Independent, other sites destroyed by rebel groups include a Roman cemetery and “statues carved out of the sides of a valley at al-Qatora” in Aleppo province. The church “at St Simeon has been turned into a military training area and artillery range by the rebels”.
Rebel groups are not the only culprits. Pitched battles between the Syrian Army and the rebels have also led to the destruction of historic sites. The thousand-year-old minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo – a world heritage site – was destroyed in early 2013. The city’s Souk Al-Madina, the largest covered historic market in the world, was burnt in September 2012 as a result of the fighting between government and opposition troops. The ancient and world-renowned Omari Mosque, the Krak des Chevaliers and Palmyra’s temples have all been rocked by shells, mortar bombs and rockets.
Apart from the destruction brought about by conflict, Syria’s great archaeological treasures have also become victims of looters. Much of this looting is now being carried out on a massive scale by mafias from Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, abetted by Syrians themselves. Many inside and outside West Asia are profiting from this despicable activity.
While military encounters and looting have had a devastating impact on Syria’s rich heritage, those who really care about the country are equally concerned about Islamist rebel groups who, for narrow, bigoted ideological reasons, are hell-bent on destroying statues and sculptures that portray the human form. They regard such depictions as an affront to Islam. In rebel-controlled areas there is a concerted drive to destroy mosaics with mythological figures and Greek and Roman statues from an earlier age.
It is this same mentality that is responsible for attacks on some historical sites in Iraq (though the Anglo-American occupation has also caused immense damage to the nation’s heritage, such as when the US military turned an area in ancient Babylon into Camp Alpha in 2003 and 2004). The destruction of the Buddhist shrines in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, by the Taleban in 2001 was a product of the same religious bigotry. Bigots who defiled the mausoleums of Sufi saints in Timbuktu, Mali in 2013 were also adhering to the same dogmatic script that their counterparts in other Muslim countries had faithfully followed.
The danger posed by religious bigotry to the history and identity of a nation will have to be dealt with through mass education aimed at developing an accommodative and inclusive outlook in matters of faith and belief.  Unfortunately, there are very few religious teachers and scholars within the Muslim world who are prepared to assume this responsibility at this juncture. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), for instance, has made no attempt to draw together the ulama (religious scholars) within the ummah (community) to fight the sort of bigotry that provides religious legitimacy to the destruction of a people’s memory.     
However, Unesco has made efforts to alert the world to the destruction that is occurring in Syria. There have been some positive responses. But much more has to be done to save Syria’s illustrious history, which is all humanity’s common heritage.   
Dr Chandra Muzaffar is president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).