By Emma Cunliffe, November 2012

Aleppo under threat: Shellings of an ancient khan in the old town of Aleppo (Video source: Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger Facebook group)

As one of the landmarks of Middle Eastern culture since ancient times, Syria is home to some of the most important sites in human history, symbols of humanity's achievements and lasting cultural legacy.  Six of them were designated World Heritage sites by UNESCO[i] - a testament to their outstanding universal value to all mankind.  Yet as the conflict continues to rage across a country once famed for its tolerance and welcoming demeanour, it is these same sites which are thrust into the heart of the conflict.

The following list summarizes what we know today with regards to the state of Syria’s most important heritage sites, some of which comprise an entire city itself.


Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in human history, contains a patchwork of more than 7000 years of successive intermingling civilisations, such as the Hittites, Assyrians, Arabs and Ottomans.  In the last six months the gatehouse of the 13th century citadel was damaged by shelling[ii], a fire devastated part of the medieval souk[iii] (a covered market which is still in use today), and even the ancient 12th century Umayyad mosque has been damaged and burned in the fighting[iv], as well as entire areas of the historic Old City, which have been shelled[v].


Damascus claims to be the other oldest continuously inhabited city, and like Aleppo it was a flourishing trade centre whose monuments date from more than 5000 years of settlement.  Fighting was once again reported in the Old City, particularly the Christian quarter[vi], which contains the house of Ananias - where Paul of the Christian New Testament stayed after his conversion - as well as many other important locations.  A car bomb went off outside the walls of the ancient citadel[vii], and numerous reports and photos have been uploaded online showing shelled mosques and holy shrines, damaged historic houses and of fighting and fires amongst the ancient buildings[viii].


Palmyra was a trade city built on a desert oasis.  Located at the crossroads of civilisations, Greco-Roman styles merged with Persian influence in a haunting desert setting to leave something unique.  Now tanks rumble up the Roman roads[ix], gunfire from the ancient Arab citadel pockmarks the earlier ruins[x], and reports suggest heavy looting has plagued the temples and tombs[xi].


Crak des Chevaliers is one of the most significant, splendid and well preserved examples of Arab / Western fortifications from the Crusades (11th-13th Century).  It was never taken in battle, eventually falling by treachery.  Today, reports circulate of looting inside[xii], and videos on YouTube show shell impacts on the walls[xiii], which apparently also damaged the ancient mosque inside[xiv].  Its partner castle, Qal'at Salah el-din, was also apparently damaged, but no reports of what happened are available[xv].


The ancient city of Bosra was once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia, and later a stopover on the pilgrimage route to Mecca.  Videos and photos online show extensive damage to some of the historic houses from shelling[xvi].


Most recently, the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria were inscribed onto the World Heritage list only last year.  Also known as the 'Dead' or 'Forgotten' Cities, they are forty exceptionally well preserved villages which still stand (sometimes to the second storey) as a testimony to rural life in the first millennium AD.  Reports suggest the most famous monument, the Basilica of St Simeon's[xvii], was damaged by shells, as were many other buildings[xviii], whilst others have been badly damaged by looting[xix].


Yet in the face of the tragedy, other reports circulate of Syria's citizens coming together and risking their lives, not only to share what is happening with the outside world, but to protect their heritage from those who would harm it.   New programmes are being rolled out by the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums to help Syrians realise just what it is they have, how precious it is, and that it is in their hands to protect it[xx].


Some have argued that it's wrong to decry the cost to Syria's heritage when the human cost - now numbered well into in the thousands - is so high, but as one Syrian said of the fire in the Aleppo souk, "Our hearts and minds have been burned in this fire.  It’s not just a souk and shops, but it’s our soul, too.” [xxi]


Emma Cunliffe is a PhD researcher at Durham University, England, and the authsor of the report "Damage to the Soul: Syria's cultural Heritage in Conflict", published by the Global Heritage Fund in May this year.  The report cataloged the damage to Syria's heritage, and the situation continues to be monitored.

[i] UNESCO. (Accessed 21 October 2012)

[ii] Cohen, P.  2012.  Syrian Conflict Imperils Historical Treasures.  New York Times. (Accessed 15 August 2012)

[iii] Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger.  La citadelle d’Alep,  La citadelle d’Alep 2  .Photo Albums 10 August 2012.  (Accessed 14 August 2012)

Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger.  Incendie dans l’ancien souq - Alep Photo album 03 October 2012.  (Accessed 10 October 2012)

[iv] Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger.  The Great Mosque of Aleppo under threat  Photo album.  10 October 2012 (accessed 12 October 2012)

[v] Syria Today.  2012.  Daily News Brief 2 September 2012 - Countrywide Clashes Continue.  Syria Today.  02 September 2012.  (Accessed 03 September 2012).,,

2012.  AFP.  2012.   Experts fear more damage to Aleppo heritage sites as clashes rage.  Oman Tribune.  10 September 2012. (Accessed 10 09 2012.)

[vi] Syria2012Archives.  2012.  Syria - Assad Tries to Break General Strike in Damascus Old City.  Video dated 03 June 2012, uploaded 07 July 2012.  (Accessed 30 July 2012).

[vii] Smith, G.  2012.  Huge explosion in busy market shakes Damascus as tensions threaten to spread beyond Syria.  Daily Mail.  28 June 2012.  (Accessed 19 07 2012).

[viii]The Syrian Revolution 2011.  2012. 20 September 2012.  (Accessed  22 September 2012)

30 September 2012.  (Accessed 01 October 2012)

Al-Ahram Weekly.  2012.  Damascus destroys its own heritage.  Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue 1112.  30 August 2012.  (Accessed 03 September 2012).

Syria Today.  2012.  Daily News Brief 6 September 2012 - Clashes in Southern Damascus Continue.  Syria Today.  06 September 2012.  (Accessed 22 September 2012).

[ix] Elass, R.  2012.  Heritage in the Crossfire: How Syria is destroying its past.  International Business Times.  25 August 2012.  (Accessed 29 August 2012).

[x] Global Heritage Network.  2012.  Syrian Army Attacks Palmyra's Roman Ruins.   Heritage on the Wire Blog.  05 March 2012.  (Accessed 06 March 2012).

[xi] المركز الاعلامي تدم. 2012.  Uploaded 21 July 2012, shared 23 July 2012.  (Accessed 26 July 2012).

al-Tadmoury, A.  2012.  Soldiers video reignites fears of Looting at Syria’s archaeological sites.  France 24.  31 July 2012.  (Accessed 20 August 2012).

[xii] Aji, A.  2012.  Syria's cultural treasures latest uprising victim.  Fox News.  01 May 2012. (Accessed 09 May 2012).

[xiii] Ugarit News.  2012.  10 July 2012.  Shared 24 08 2012.  (Accessed 29 08 2012).

Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger.  Krak des Chevaliers en danger  Photo Albums 03 October 2012.  (Accessed 04 October 2012).

[xiv] Fisk, R.  2012.  Syria's ancient treasures pulverised.  The Independent.  05 August 2012.  (Accessed 06 August 2012).

[xv] Fisk, R.  2012.  Syria's ancient treasures pulverised.  The Independent.  05 August 2012.  (Accessed 06 August 2012).

[xvi] Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger.  2012.  Bousra Maisons anciennes bombardées. 

Video made 19 and 27 June 2012.  Uploaded 28 June 2012.  Shared by LPASED 30 June 2012.  (Accessed 09 July 2012).

Archaeo Life Blog.  2012.  What’s Going on in Bosra?  16 September 2012.  (Accessed 22 September 2012).

[xvii]  Ugarit News. 2 012.   31 5 Daret Izza Aleppo.  Uploaded 31 May 2012, shared 23 July2012. (Accessed 26 July 2012). Sherlock, R.  2012.  Aleppo’s ancient souk ablaze as war destroys Syria’s heritage.  DNA.  01 October 2012.  (Accessed 03 October 2012).

[xviii] Cunliffe, E.  2012.  Damage to the Soul: Syria's Cultural Heritage in Conflict.  Palo Alto: Global Heritage Fund

[xix] Archaeo Life.  2012.  إدلب: قرية المغارة.  Archaeo Life Blog - contains embedded YouTube video by 2011alhoria, 04 September 2012. 09 September 2012.  (Accessed 10 September 2012).

[xx] Al-Nounou, B.  2012.  National Campaign: Engaging Local Communities in Protecting Syria’s Cultural Heritage.  The Syria Times.  11 October 2012. (Accessed 20 October 2012).

[xxi] Barnard, A and Saad, H.  2012.  In Syria’s Largest City, Fire Ravages Ancient Market.  New York Times.  30 September 2012.  (Accessed 01 October 2012).

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