War Puts Syrian Antiquities At 'Heritage Sites' In Danger

Syria is awash in major archaeological sites, several recognized as "world heritage sites" by UNESCO. Some of the most famous of these have now been damaged or even largely destroyed in the war between the government and rebel forces.

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Last week in the Syrian city of Aleppo, clashes sparked fires that partially destroyed a vast bazaar. The market dates back to medieval times and its on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites, one of several in Syria.

Rasha Elass sent this story on how the Syrian conflict is threatening the country's antiquities.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASHA ELASS, BYLINE: This is a modern interpretation of some of the earliest music known to humanity, music from before there was an ancient Greece, from a people called the Hurrians. The notes to this music were found on clay tablets in Syria dating back to 1400 B.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ELASS: Syria is filled with these treasures. It's home to some of the earliest human settlements in the world. Take the famous Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, it dates back at least to Hellenistic times, and it served as a temple to the Aramaic god of rain. Later, it became a Roman temple, then a church. And finally, early in the eighth century, a mosque - one of the most important sites in the Muslim world today.

But Syria's rich heritage is now under threat, as civil war rages throughout the country. Emma Cunliffe is an archeology researcher at Durham University in the U.K. She recently documented damage from shelling and looting to every single one of Syria's major landmarks, and a great deal of damage to many of the minor ones, as well.

EMMA CAUNLIFFE: So, for example, the Citadel at Aleppo, where there's still very heavy fighting around the citadel and in the old quarter, we know that the doors to the citadel were blown apart, and those doors date to 1211. The oldest occupation on that hill is at least 5,000 years old.

ELASS: Cunliffe says some of the worst damage has been in central Syria in Palmyra, another U.N. World Heritage Site. Thousands of years ago, it used to be a thriving metropolis, an oasis trading hub. Now, statuettes have been hacked off the site and at least one ancient temple has collapsed.

Some locals accuse government troops. Majd the Palmyrian is the nom de guerre of an activist based in Palmyra. He says vibrations from Syrian army vehicles are causing cracks all over the site, including the famed Roman Triumphal Arc.

MAJD THE PALMYRIAN: (Through translator) Before the war, cars were not even allowed to drive near the site. Now, the army drives on the stone cobbled road with tanks and heavy vehicles, causing visible damage.

ELASS: Majd says Syrian troops are digging tunnels and looting the Palmyra site.

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ELASS: This video, uploaded to YouTube by anti-government activists, shows what appear to be Syrian soldiers in full gear, posing amid the delicate ruins at Palmyra. In another video, men whose faces are off-camera load pre-Roman statues onto the back of a pickup truck.

Professor Helen Sader is an archeologist at the American University of Beirut. She says the looting and damage to Syria's heritage is particularly tragic, because for decades the Syrian regime has actually gone out of its way to encourage and protect archeological discoveries.

HELEN SADER: Syria had a very, very important cultural program, archeological program. They were furthering and developing archeology. And they were preserving archeological remains and they were building regional museums for their own people.

ELASS: She says for decades Syria has been a favorite for international archeologists because they were constantly finding evidence of previously unknown civilizations.

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ELASS: Like these words, which were inscribed some 5,000 years ago on clay tablets during the Kingdom of Urkesh, which is now an excavation site in northern Syria. This recording is based on the inscriptions.

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ELASS: Rick Hauser specializes in Mesopotamian archeology. He was recently working to excavate the palace at Urkesh. He was about to return and continue his work there when anti-government protests erupted in March last year. He says thousands of tiny, thumbnail-sized pieces told the story of everyday life inside the palace of Urkesh.

RICK HAUSER: I will never forget the moment when this little thing appeared. Because, I mean, you see something that small and you study it and you say, well, I'm now looking at a hunk of rock or dirt of what is this. And then you say, oh no, my god. It's a picture. It's a story of happenings.

ELASS: He says today, with so many sites in Syria looted and destroyed, entire eras of human history could be lost forever.

For NPR News, I'm Rasha Elass.

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