When people talk of the destruction of heritage, they think first of great monuments burning or destroyed to rubble. Yet these monuments are about people, and it is with people that all discussions of heritage must start and end. Heritage is built by them, and used and reused by them. Heritage is also about more than built structures, it is about the intangible beliefs and practices associated with them, and the values assigned to them, as well as those which may have no material manifestation. Any consideration of destruction must include many expressions.
Importance of Syrian Heritage
Syria is home to some of the oldest, most advanced civilisations in the world. The area saw our evolution – for example, at Latamne, which is between 800 – 500,000 years old, stone tools and possibly even early hearths were identified – hundreds of thousands of years before modern humans existed (120,000 years ago). 10,000 years ago, the first crops and cattle were domesticated: the subsequent settlement gave rise to the first city states, such as Ebla and Mari. Writing developed there, and the creation of literary epics, art, sculpture, and the expansion of trade soon followed.
Located at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, the land that would become modern Syria faced the rise of the great Southern empires emerging from Ur, Bablyon, Assur, Akkad and Sumer. From the East came the Persians, the Mongols, and the Arabs; from the North the Hittites; and from the West, the Greeks, the Romans the Byzantines, and eventually the Crusading forces of the Kings of Europe. Nomadic tribes, known from the Christian Bible, such as the Canaanites and Arameans, came, conquered, and settled. Syria was ultimately absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, passed to French control after World War I, and finally achieved independence following World War II.
Religion, too, left its mark. Abraham, father of the Jewish nation, pastured sheep on the hill of Aleppo and gave the city its Arabic name – Halab. The Christian story of the conversion of Saul to Paul the Apostle occurred in Damascus, and in 2010 mass was still held in the house he reputedly inhabited almost 2,000 years ago. The head of the John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, is said to be enshrined in the Great Mosque in Damascus. The village Maloula is amongst the last places in the world where Aramaic, the language spoken at the time of Jesus, can still be heard – part of a living, breathing, spoken history. Khalid ibn al-Walid, companion to the Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam, is buried in Homs in his namesake mosque. Muhammad’s successors left a legacy of beautiful mosques: several are now part of World Heritage sites.
The result of this meeting of states, empires and faiths is complex and unique, found nowhere else in the world. The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, for example, was originally a temple to Jupiter, which was converted to a Christian basilica to John the Baptist, and in turn became what some consider the fourth-holiest place in Islam (Hitti 2002, 5). Salahdin, the enemy of King Richard the Lionheart, is buried here, as history continued to leave its ever-changing imprint. In the last thirty years, UNESCO has declared six sites in Syria to be of outstanding universal value, including the Ancient City of Damascus, and added them to the World Heritage List: many more are under tentative consideration.
Built from this rich and diverse history, Syria’s people have a reputation for tolerance and kindness. Yet now this history, and the peace built upon it, is threatened as never before, and cultural heritage is in the line of fire.
(From: “The ways of living”: Syria’s past in an uncertain future by Emma Cunliffe)
- A Brief Account of Project Activities in Syria – Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme, AKTC, 2001.
- Cultural Policy Profiles: Syria by Reem Al Khatib and Rana Yazaji. In: Cultural Policies in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, lebanon, Marocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunesia. An introduction, Cultural resource/European Cultural Foundation, Bookmanstudies, 2010, 174-201
- Revitalising the Citadels of Syria – Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme, AKTC, 2008.
- The Citadel of Aleppo: Description, History, Site plan & Visitor Tour (pdf) by Julia Gonnela. Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), 2008