Saving Syrian history in the middle of a civil war

Syria’s Great Mosque of Aleppo, or Umayyad Mosque, was built in the eighth century in the Ancient City of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Sacked by fire, conquerors, and earthquakes, the Great Mosque was rebuilt several times, and is believed by some Muslims to contain the remains of the Prophet Zakariya, father of the Prophet Yahya, whom Christians call John the Baptist.

A 148-foot-tall minaret was erected at the mosque around 1070 C.E., and stood intact through centuries of man-made and natural disasters, until it met the brutality of the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

Most likely by tank fire from supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the minaret was destroyed in April of 2013. It towered over the Levant for more than 900 years, and like that—it was gone.

The three-year-old conflict in Syria has claimed nearly 200,000 lives and displaced millions. Human suffering has taken its rightful place at the forefront of the war’s concern, but the country’s history is dying a quiet death.

In June, experts from the Penn Cultural Heritage Center (PennCHC) at the Penn Museum, together with colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution, The Day After Association, the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force, and the U.S. Institute of Peace, brought a group of about 20 heritage activists, archeologists, and museum curators from opposition-controlled areas in Syria to Turkey for a three-day training seminar focused on preserving Syrian cultural heritage.

Attendees, including Brian Daniels, director of research and programs at the PennCHC, and Salam al-Kuntar, a visiting professor at Penn, gathered near the Syrian border and discussed issues relating to documentation, protecting high-risk collections, how to pack and save objects in the event of an expected bombing, and lessons learned from conflicts past. Much of their work was concentrated on the preservation of the Ma’arra Museum, located in Syria between Damascus and Aleppo.

Al-Kuntar, a Syrian archaeologist who joined the School of Arts & Sciences in August of 2012, says she has kept in touch with cultural heritage activists inside Syria and abroad, and heard of the growing destruction and sorrow as the war worsened. After meeting PennCHC Executive Director Richard Leventhal, she approached the Center about putting together a project to provide assistance.

“The Penn Cultural Heritage Center is very progressive and sees cultural heritage through the eyes of the people who live around it or are most concerned about it,” she says. “They care about empowering the people who belong to this heritage.”

The scholars and activists in Turkey studied ways in which the Allies protected collections in France and London during World War II, and examined the safeguarding of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” which Daniels says is widely popular in Syria across ethnic and religious lines. The Italian monastery that houses the painting took a direct hit during the Second World War, but the painting survived.

Daniels says he could see the stress of war among the heritage activists who attended, many of whom are risking their lives to preserve their country’s history.

“There was just a pervasive sadness that was totally palpable among the group,” he says.

One activist had to excuse himself in the middle of the workshop after he learned that his hometown had been bombed.

“We all paused while he was trying to figure out from friends if his family was still alive,” Daniels says. “That’s the kind of lived reality that the people had.”

When the workshop concluded, the activists were given emergency supplies, and cameras and other materials to help with documentation. Funding was provided by the Smithsonian and the J.M. Kaplan Fund.

Human history in Syria dates back millennia, and the country is home to six UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Ancient City of Aleppo, which was established in the 2nd millennium B.C.E.; the Ancient City of Damascus, which was founded in the 3rd millennium B.C.E.; and the Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din, two castles from the times of the Crusades.

“Syria is the same as the rest of the Middle East—it is ancient and there are layers of history everywhere spanning thousands of years,” al-Kuntar says.

Damascus and Aleppo are unique in that they are World Heritage sites in which people actually live.

“They walk by these monuments,” says al-Kuntar. “They are embedded in their culture.”

Daniels says the most dangerous threat to Syrian cultural heritage is the deliberate destruction of historic sites by terrorist groups ISIS and al-Nusra Front, and the wholesale bombing of ancient areas by the Assad regime. Assad has shown a willingness to bomb opposition forces wherever they congregate, with little to no regard for his country’s cultural identity.

Large-scale and systematic looting of cutural heritage sites has also plagued the country as ISIS has sanctioned looting in regions under its control in exchange for a 20 percent tax on the value of the stolen objects.

“A lot of the looting is being done by Iraqis, not by Syrians, who had experience looting in Iraq during the war,” Daniels says.

There is very little left of the Ancient City of Aleppo, which has been heavily damaged by tunneling and barrel bombs—oil drums filled with explosives and shrapnel that are dropped from the sky.

“In those areas, there’s no amount of intervening that we can do that prevents a barrel bomb or can help stop the damage that comes from a barrel bomb,” Daniels says. “In these kinds of situations, what we try and do is assist in the documentation of what happened and identify information for hopefully the rebuilding of these places some time down the line.”

The Syrian Civil War rages. The United Nations continues to call for peace. UNESCO pleads again and again for the protection of public heritage. The Syrian people are still dying, and some of their most cherished history is gone.

With more funding, Daniels says they plan to host additional training sessions for Syrian activists and interventions to protect the country’s heritage.

“[Syrian cultural heritage is] vital to their identity as a people, it’s vital to their identity as a country, but also critical to them economically since so much of Syria’s economy is based on tourism,” he says. “Obviously, not right now, but these are all strategic concerns of Syrian moderates who are seeing the destruction of their country and really trying to figure out what steps they can take to make sure that after this is all over, there is something left.”

Syria Cultural Heritage