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A new role for Syria’s heritage sites: Party venues for restless youth

Revelers dance at a rave held at the ancient Krak des Chevaliers castle in western Syria on Aug. 19. (Video: Courtesy of Sinn Experience)

BEIRUT — The music was pulsing as colored lights danced across the crowd. The DJs kept the party going until dawn. It was like any other rave, expect this one was held at a medieval castle, Krak des Chevaliers, one of Syria’s most cherished cultural landmarks.

Before the Syrian civil war, tourists flocked to the country to take in its rich history and tour its ancient cities and castles — six of which had been designated by the United Nations as World Heritage sites.

In 2013, as the war intensified, UNESCO placed all six on its List of World Heritage in Danger, a designation it hoped would “mobilize all possible support for the safeguarding of these properties.” But the conflict would take a terrible toll, and violence prevented UNESCO from working to repair the damage. Now, as the war winds down, cultural experts are still struggling to access heritage sites, and they fear no one is working to protect them.

The destruction over the past decade has been extensive. Krak des Chevaliers, or al-Hosn Castle, was struck in 2012 and 2013, damaging at least one tower. The ancient city of Palmyra was ravaged by Islamic State militants, who partially blew up a Roman amphitheater, which they used for public executions, and destroyed temples and the huge triumphal arch honoring Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. UNESCO condemned the demolitions as a “war crime.”

The government now controls five of the six World Heritage sites and has reopened them to tourists. But UNESCO says it has conducted assessment visits to just three of the sites, citing security concerns. Since 2011, experts have been unable to reach Krak des Chevaliers in western Syria, as well as the Qal’at Salah El-Din, a fortress that dates to Byzantine times, and the ancient Roman city of Bosra.

“The restoration and recovery of cultural heritage sites and cities can take place only after the settlement of the conflict,” the UNESCO World Heritage Center said when asked about the lack of access.

U.N. intervention in Syria has been limited to humanitarian issues, the World Heritage Center wrote in an emailed brief, saying it “supports the protection of Syrian cultural heritage from a distance. On the one hand, we assess the damage caused to cultural heritage, using remote sensing techniques. ... On the other hand, we provide advice to prepare for the restoration of conflict-damaged World Heritage.”

Images of the dance party at Krak des Chevaliers last month raised alarm among experts, who were already worried the government was prioritizing tourism over preservation.

Amid criticism, Western tourists returning to a battered Syria

“Forget about raves and all that: You usually have big [foot] traffic of visitors, and this all causes wear on a site,” said Amr Al-Azm, a Syrian professor of Middle Eastern history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio who worked in the country before the war. “As the keeper of a site, you always try to balance between the needs of local communities, the needs of the protection of the site and the needs of maintaining the site.”

The issue today, Azm said, “is that there is no oversight. We don’t know who’s responsible, and there is a past history of the usage of these sites for unconventional functions, which then resulted in significant damage of the site itself.”

Azm recalled an example from before the war, in the early 2000s, when air conditioners were mounted on the roof of the Aleppo Citadel for a conference at the World Heritage site. The ensuing damage to the ancient walls caused a scandal and led to an investigation.

“When you don’t have oversight, and somebody comes in and does something like that, you end up with a lot of significant irreparable damage to the site itself,” said Azm. Such damage could result in sites being knocked off the World Heritage list, which happened with Liverpool’s Victorian docks after UNESCO concluded that years of development had caused “irreversible loss.”

In lieu of bringing in international experts, Syria’s Culture Ministry and event planners say they are going to great lengths to ensure the sites are treated with care.

When Michael Atallah, 30, and his partners started their entertainment venture Siin Experience, their aim was to bring electronic music to Syria and marry it with the country’s celebrated heritage — Sin was the name of the Mesopotamian moon god. They wanted to get young Syrians excited about ancient sites, which most had only visited during dreary school trips.

Atallah lost track of how many venues they applied to before finally winning permission to organize the rave at Krak des Chevaliers. To help push the idea through, he said, they showed the Culture Ministry examples of concerts at other ancient sites, like the ones held in the Roman-era Théâtre Antique d’Orange in France. “We always try to show them that this is being done abroad,” he said.

The group then employed a music engineer from Lebanon — the regional destination for electronic raves and parties in general — who pays special attention to the effect the vibrations have on old structures. It wasn’t just a preservation issue, Atallah said. He also worried that old stones could come loose and fall on the crowd.

The planners originally envisioned their event inside the fortifications, but the Culture Ministry denied them access after studying the request.

“We didn’t enter one centimeter of the castle,” Atallah said.

The event, attended by 1,200 people, was held in the parking lot outside, with the castle’s ancient walls serving as a backdrop for the DJs’ turntables. Lasers flitted across the stone structure, sometimes drawing purple and green lines along the edges, creating the impression of a massive childish drawing of a black castle outlined in neon. Then red lights flooded the place, bringing the walls to life.

Atallah hopes it will be the first in a succession of parties at historic sites. From the famed Khan Assad Pasha, a caravanserai in Old Damascus, to the courtyard of the Damascus Citadel, he wants to showcase what his tired country still has to offer.

“People come to you at the end of the night and tell you, ‘You are helping me stay in this country,’” he said. Everyone — the organizers, the musicians, the crowds — can finally “empty out all the negative energy that we’re all feeling.”