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Monday, December 8, 2014

Syria’s Ancient Heritage Sites Constantly Under Threat

A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows columns in the courtyard of the temple of Baal at the ancient city of Palmyra damaged by artillery shelling in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows columns in the courtyard of the temple of Baal at the ancient city of Palmyra damaged by artillery shelling in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometers northeast of Damascus. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

The Syrian conflict has claimed more than 100,000 lives and it’s been a devastating
human tragedy, but there’s also been a major toll on the country’s historic cultural landmarks.

Syria is home to six UNESCO world heritage sites –most of them have been damaged by bombs and looting– and other important sites are also under continued threat of being damaged or destroyed. Sites under threat include the world’s oldest synagogue and the oldest depiction of Christ.

The site containing the Middle East’s largest collection of mosaics is also under threat.

In regions controlled by the Islamic State In Iraq and Syria, better known as ISIS, — looters are allowed into the sites and ISIS is charging them tax for the valuable artifacts they take.

The University of Pennsylvania Cultural Heritage Center is helping to train heritage workers still inside Syria to document and protect existing sites.

Salam Al Kuntar, a Syrian archaeologist and visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania told Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson that many of those workers are willing to risk their lives to preserve these cultural sites.

Interview Highlights: Salam Al Kuntar

On the endangered sites

“We have this world heritage site that is Crac des Chevaliers, it’s a crusader site that is left from the crusader war episode in the middle east. It’s a unique architecture example of its own and dates back to the 11th century AD. That has been damaged severely, there are threats that it might collapse. That world heritage site will be lost. The other example now is Dura Europos, a caravan site on the Euphrates river and this is currently controlled by the Islamic state. The site represents a great mingle of cultures where a cosmopolitan society, in the sense that we imagined happened in history, still has the oldest surviving synagogue and has the earliest depiction of Jesus the Christ and a lot of writings from Persian, Aramaic, and Greek. This site is in a great danger, it’s been systematically looted every day.”

On ISIS regulating the looting

So the looting was going before ISIS came on the scene but then ISIS is trying to regulate the looting. They issued taxes on the looters, they take percentages of the profit that the looters are making. So they are profiting from it but I wouldn’t say it is a main income for them. They are just trying to regulate the process as they are trying to regulate everything under their control.”

On the importance of these sites

“These monuments which survived till the 21st century, they capture all these images from history, they give the people who live there their identity. They are symbols of different cultures you read about in books…It will change the fabric of the country. It will make a severe damage to people’s identity when the place where they grew up and the place they related to is no longer the same place. It just will transform the whole region. It is a great loss for humanity, for the significance of this cultural heritage where West meets East, where Arabs meet with different Semitic groups, where different religious sects meet. All the stories of different religions started there Judaism, Christianity, Islam.”


  • Salam Al Kuntar, Syrian archaeologist and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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