Wars often carry eerie parallels to a region’s earlier history, but Middle Eastern historians are fearful about what the current fight may bring to Syria’s rich historical sites.
In Aleppo, Syria’s former commercial capital and a vibrant gem of the region’s historical heritage, successive battles between forces loyal to Assad and rebels have left the Islamic old city ravaged by fire and torn down by artillery shells. Assad’s tanks blasted through the 11th-century minaret of a treasured mosque, activists say. And Aleppo’s 14th-century souk — once a covered maze of well-preserved stone and wooden shops — has gone up in flames.
“We create these heritage sites in times of peace, and then we destroy them much faster than we built them,” said Helga Seedan, an archaeologist at the American University in Beirut.
But even amid the destruction, Aleppo’s citadel is still standing, and it remains a prize worth fighting over.
“It’s a center for more than a hundred snipers,” said Majed Abdul-Nour, the alias of a local opposition activist interviewed via Skype.
“There have been many attempts by the rebels to liberate the citadel,” he said. But the high ground and high walls, and the bullets fired so easily through its arrow slits, he said, “make the mission to liberate it too difficult for now.”
Online images that have circulated in the past year show shell damage and alleged looters digging holes around the al-Madiq citadel in Hama province, the Aleppo citadel, Crak des Chevaliers and the Palmyra citadel in Syria’s central desert — the latter three of which are UNESCO world heritage sites.
But while Syrian officials have acknowledged some of the destruction, they have cast the blame for it on “terrorist groups,” the catch-all phrase that the state has assigned to its opponents, whether peaceful protesters or armed Islamist extremists. Opposition groups attribute the damage to the regime .
In Hama, activists said government forces had transformed the third-century al-Madiq citadel, which towers over acres of green farmland, into a military garrison that the troops have to batter Sunni villages nearby.
“Inside the citadel there are heavy and mid-range weapons,” said Ahmed Radoun, a local activist. But the rebels have never tried to storm it because displaced local residents are believed to have also sought refuge behind its powerful walls, he said.
Even the regions that are contested today echo the battles of a bygone era. The Orontes River valley, which forms part of the border with Lebanon, has been a strategic passage for so long that Egypt’s pharaohs fought for it, later inscribing the scenes of battle across the walls of their temples.
“All the kingdoms of settled Syria wanted to control the famous route that is known as the Homs gap between the coast and the Orontes valley,” said Helen Sader, an archaeologist at the American University in Beirut. “That is why the crusaders built the Crak des Chevaliers on this route to protect it.”
And that is why Syrian regime forces and opposition fighters say they are fighting hard for it today. Several months ago, opposition fighters say they overran Crak des Chevaliers’ sophisticated walls and turrets, which they say the regime had used to shell the neighborhoods below.
“The regime knows that importance of this castle,” said Abu Hamza al-Homsi, a local activist. “These stones are like shields for any fighter inside.”
But the fortress has continued to weather government strikes, activists said. Another fighter, who gave his name as Qais al-Hussni, said that almost the entire southern wall of the fortress has been destroyed.
As the weaponry and rules of modern warfare evolve, so, too, may the towering symbols of Syria’s heritage, until they fade into the so-called tells — cone-shaped mounds of disintegrated ruins — on which they were built, for a future generation of experts, looters and warmongers to comb through.
“It’s a crossroad of cultures. It’s a crossroad of armies. It’s a crossroad of trade,” Sader said.
“This is the importance of Syria. And this is what made it so attractive to so many powers — and it still is,” she said. “We just hope that this will end very soon, before they destroy everything.”
Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.