War In Syria Threatens UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
With the recent United States involvement in the Syrian Civil War, the violent situation in the Middle Eastern country looks to be escalating. The war has pushed over 13.5 million Syrians into refugee situations.

Since 2011, the civil war in Syria has decimated the country and its people; civilians have lost their homes, jobs, and loved ones to violence. Now, the people of Syria have the potential to lose something else in this bloody conflict: history.

Syria lies in the heart of the “Cradle of Civilization,” which spans from Egypt to Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Human civilizations and cultures have occupied the region for more than 12,000 years, and each one has left a lasting physical impression on the land in the form of historical landmarks,

The country of Syria is home to six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which are locations deemed by the United Nations to be of incredible historical or cultural significance to the world’s development. Syria features some of the oldest UNESCO sites in the world.

But, in Syria’s war-torn environment, these sites face immediate danger, as do the people that these sites represent. Here is a list of Syria’s most prized cultural locations.

Ancient City of Aleppo

Before Syria’s civil war began, Aleppo fostered a thriving population of over 2 million people, but the ancient city has served as one of the world’s cross-cultural centers since the 2nd century B.C.

Aleppo was controlled sequentially by the Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mamluks and Ottomans. All of these major civilizations left their unique impression on the city through architectural works like the 12th-century Great Mosque, the Citadel, 16th- and 17th-century khans, residences, public baths, and madrasas.

“The monumental Citadel of Aleppo, rising above the suqs, mosques and madrasas of the old walled city, is testament to Arab military might from the 12th to the 14th centuries,” UNESCO states. “With evidence of past occupation by civilizations dating back to the 10th century B.C., the Citadel contains the remains of mosques, palace and bath buildings.”

A walled city rose around the Citadel with Greek, Roman, and Muslim influence. The Ayyubid and Mamluk instituted classic mosques, while the Ottomans constructed elaborate palaces.

“The surviving ensemble of major buildings as well as the coherence of the urban character of the suqs and residential streets and lanes all contribute to the Outstanding Universal Value,” according to UNESCO.

Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din

This single UNESCO World Heritage Site exhibits two castles that illustrate the cultural diffusion that occurred throughout the Byzantine, Crusader, and Islamic periods. The castles sit on high ridges, as they were key defensive positions during tumultuous periods of cross-cultural contention.

“The Crac des Chevaliers was built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem from 1142 to 1271,” UNESCO states. “With further construction by the Mamluks in the late 13th century, it ranks among the best-preserved examples of the Crusader castles.”

Though the Qal'at Salah El-Din is partly in ruins, the castle “retains features from its Byzantine beginnings in the 10th century, the Frankish transformations in the late 12th century and fortifications added by the Ayyubid dynasty (late 12th to mid-13th century),” according to UNESCO.

The two castles exemplify Crusader-era fortified architecture and reminds the world of Syria’s strategic location as a crossroads between cultures.

Site of Palmyra

In the 17th century, travelers discovered the remains of an ancient oasis city in the desert northeast of Damascus, which prompted further historical investigation. Historians learned that Palmyra was once one of the most culturally significant cities in the ancient world, boasting influences of Roman, Greek, and Persian civilizations.

The archives of Mari, which date to the 2nd millennium B.C., provide the first historical record of the oasis.

“Palmyra was an established caravan oasis when it came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD as part of the Roman province of Syria,” UNESCO states. “It grew steadily in importance as a city on the trade route linking Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire, marking the crossroads of several civilisations in the ancient world.”

Major ancient streets connect public monuments like the Temple of Ba'al, Diocletian's Camp, the Agora Theatre, and ancient residences. Outside the city’s borders, visitors can still see the remains of a Roman aqueduct and necropolises.

Ancient City of Bosra

Bosra first appears in historical records beginning in the 14th century B.C.; royal correspondences between the Egyptian pharaohs and the Phoenicians kings specifically mention the city. Then, in 106 A.D., the Romans conquered the city and incorporated it into the empire.

“Alexander Severus gave it the title Colonian Bostra and Philip the Arab minted currency especially for it,” according to UNESCO. “During Byzantine times, Bosra was a major frontier market where Arab caravans came to stock up and its bishops took part in the Council of Antioch. Bosra was the first Byzantine city which the Arabs entered in 634 in the phase of Islamic expansion.”

The ancient city contains ruins from Roman, Byzantine, and Muslim empires, along with Nabatean and Roman monuments, ancient Christian churches, and Muslim mosques from the Golden Age of Islam.

“Its main feature is the second century Roman Theatre, constructed probably under Trajan, which has been integrally preserved,” UNESCO states. “It was fortified between 481 and 1251 AD. Al-Omari Mosque is one of the oldest surviving mosques in Islamic history, and the Madrasah Mabrak al-Naqua is one of the oldest and most celebrated of Islam. The Cathedral of Bosra is also a building of considerable importance in the annals of early Christian architecture.”

People of various civilizations inhabited Bosra for nearly 2,500 years; in that time, the city remained almost entirely intact. Currently, the city is an open museum that can give Syrians a sense of their rich heritage.

Ancient City of Damascus

The city of Damascus was founded in the 3rd millennium B.C. and quickly became a key cultural and commercial center due to its geographic position between Africa, Europe, and Asia.

“The old city of Damascus is considered to be among the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world,” according to UNESCO. “Excavations at Tell Ramad on the outskirts of the city have demonstrated that Damascus was inhabited as early as 8,000 to 10,000 B.C.”

Damascus didn’t become a major city until the arrival of the Aramaeans. During the Medieval period, the city became a center for artisan industry; different parts of the city specialized in a specific craft or trade.

“The city exhibits outstanding evidence of the civilizations which created it - Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic,” UNESCO says. “In particular, the Umayyad caliphate created Damascus as its capital, setting the scene for the city's ongoing development as a living Muslim, Arab city, upon which each succeeding dynasty has left and continues to leave its mark.”

The city has a strong Islamic culture influence, though traces of earlier cultures (mainly Roman and Byzantine) feature prominently in the old city. Today’s city is still based on the Roman plan and maintains the orientation of Greece’s Damascus, as all streets run east-west or north-south like most Greek cities.

“The earliest visible physical evidence dates to the Roman period - the extensive remains of the Temple of Jupiter, the remains of various gates and an impressive section of the Roman city walls,” UNESCO states. “The city was the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate. The present city walls, the Citadel, some mosques and tombs survive from the Middle Ages, but the greatest part of the built heritage of the city dates from after the Ottoman conquest of the early 16th century.”

The combination of cultures that have left a lasting impact on the ancient city makes Damascus one of the most culturally significant cities that remain in the entire world.

Ancient Villages of Northern Syria

This collection of forty ancient villages in northwestern Syria provides historians with insight into rural and village life during the Byzantine Period. Though the villages were abandoned during the 8th through 10th centuries, they remain in relatively quality condition, which gives historians ample capacity to explore the day-to-day life of ancient Syria.

“[The villages] still retain a large part of their original monuments and buildings, in a remarkable state of preservation: dwellings, pagan temples, churches and Christian sanctuaries, funerary monuments, bathhouses, public buildings, buildings with economic or artisanal purposes, etc.,” UNESCO states. “It is also an exceptional illustration of the development of Christianity in the East, in village communities.”

Pending UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Syria also contains ten pending UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are in the middle of the application process for official recognition. Whether or not these sites pass the UNESCO criteria for admission, the cultural and historical significance of these sites remain in danger due to the escalation of violence in Syria.


Tom Malone is the Editor-In-Chief of The Adventure Tribune and author of adventure novels, like Across Americana. He is based in Denver, Colorado, where he adventures through the Rocky Mountains while not traveling abroad.
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