I have spent years documenting damage to Syria’s amazing cultural heritage. I have recorded sites ploughed away by farming, built over by housing, robbed for stone, dug by looters, shelled in fighting, demolished by extremists … the list goes on.
As the conflict grew, I was repeatedly asked how I could worry about stones when people were dying. Perhaps as many as 470,000 people have been killed, and millions have lost their homes and been forced to flee. And besides, I’ve been told, Syrians don’t care about their heritage. They didn’t before the conflict, and now they’ve got more important things to think about.
Given the list of damage to the country’s ancient remains, you might agree. But you’d be wrong.
The depth of Syria’s history is stunning. The country boasts some of the earliest writing and cities, including biblical Christian and Jewish sites that were still in use before the current war. There are also mosquesfounded at sites visited by the Prophet Mohammed, Crusader castles, and six UNESCO World Heritage Sites (to name just a few).
Together with the NGO, Heritage for Peace, my colleagues and I wanted to tell the story of the Syrians protecting this heritage. We’ve reviewed hundreds of news articles and social media reports since the start of the conflict. We found stories of Syrians negotiating with armed groups and extremists – including Islamic State – to save sites like Bosra and Palmyra.
They’ve gone out to sites – risking snipers, gunfire, mortars, and airstrikes – to check they are safe, record any damage, and make emergency repairs. They’ve faced down gangs of armed looters, and posed as undercover antiquities buyers. Some are staff of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). Some are former staff in areas the government no longer control, who receive no pay or official assistance for their work. Others have no heritage background, but care just as much.
But we also found recirculated, unchecked news stories (churnalism) that were contradictory or inaccurate. This confused the issue, so we decided to talk directly to the Syrians. Over several months on an intermittent phone connection, we carried out standardised interviews with several Syrians protecting heritage in areas outside of government control. Their stories are extraordinary.
We spoke to former DGAM staff, now unpaid, and others including a former lawyer and a construction worker. They talked of damage to the sites from fighting, from airstrikes, from looting, from stone robbing, and even ploughing, and described the problems they’ve faced to protect them. Even a “simple” task like checking a site for damage involves negotiating with the Free Syrian Army or Islamic groups to get permission to go.
One interviewee said:
Photographing and documentation in the archaeological sites is also very dangerous because our group was asked several times by some opposition military groups if we are using those materials to give the coordinates of the archaeological sites to the Syrian regime
Several interviewees described how heritage sites are used as bases by military groups, turning them into targets and exposing heritage workers to more danger. Others have been forced to negotiate between rival armed factions to secure protection for sites and objects. They have faced armed looters who, in addition to resisting attempts to stop them, ‘try to break our good relationships … with the people in our local communities’ and ‘try to spread false and bad things about us in our community’.
Some even traversed more than 120km of conflict-riven countryside to receive heritage protection training, smuggling themselves through the border since it’s impossible for them to get passports.
We also asked our interviewees about their views and the local community’s attitudes to heritage before the war and today. The replies suggest local communities now have a raised awareness not only of their heritage, but also of the importance of the work of those protecting it. Many interviewees spoke of the support they received from their local community.
These stories are not unique: they support many of the news articles lost in the overload of war stories. You may have heard of Khalad al-Assad, the octogenarian former director of Palmyra beheaded by Islamic State. But that group has also executed two other members of DGAM staff. In fact, a total of 15 DGAM staff have been killed, in addition to an unknown number of local heritage protectors, by the end of 2015, for example, from mortar attacks or shot when resisting looters.
Ordinary Syrian people are going to extraordinary lengths, risking everything to protect their heritage, despite the horror that has engulfed their country. For them, it is not a question of people or stones. The story of the people is embedded in those stones, a crafted story stretching back millennia. Saving that story is saving Syria.
Research associate, University of Oxford