The Assault on Syria's Cultural Heritage

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Aleppo is now one of the main fronts in the Syrian conflict. Today government forces shelled rebel-held parts of the city again. Yesterday a series of suicide bombings targeted a government-held area, and the death toll in Aleppo is climbing with each passing day. So is the cost to the city's cultural heritage. As we reported earlier this week the city's medieval souk, or covered marketplace, was seriously damaged by fire sparked by the fighting. Michael Danti is very familiar with Aleppo's souk and its other cultural treasures. He's an archaeology professor at Boston University specializing in the ancient near east. He spent 20 years working on an archaeological site by the Euphrates River near Aleppo.

Michael Danti: The souk was a living museum. It was a warren of vaulted corridors and shops, and we would drive in to outfit our expedition. The souk was divided into a number of different marketplaces and each one specialized in a different commodity or a different type of good. So we would go to the blacksmith shops to get picks and shovels, we would go to the Bedouin souk to get tents and rope. We would buy food there, clothing, shoes, they had everything you could imagine. There were even lingerie shops in the souk, there were stores that specialized in Chinese toys. But what I loved about it was that the Aleppo souk showed you every cross-section of Syrian society. There were Bedouin there in traditional garb, Baath party officials, police officers, soldiers on leave, whole families lined up like geese in a file trying to work their way down these winding corridors amid all of the donkey carts. It was a lot of fun, the sights and sounds of it. You could feel the history while you were there.

Werman: It sounds so romantic and of course we now know that the romanticism has essentially been bombed out of the souk. People like you, Michael, are so close to these issues about buildings and history, and yet thousands and thousands of people in Syria are dying. In a way we feel even on this program somewhat queasy about talking about cultural heritage when all these Syrians are being killed. How does it make you feel?

Danti: I can barely watch the news. Having worked in Syria and lived in the same village off and on for twenty years. Obviously people just like family for us and the village and the people we worked with in Damascus and Aleppo up until about four weeks ago we had fairly regular contact with those people, but in terms of their Facebook contact, cell phone contact, that all ended at that point in time. The cultural heritage is not what's really on my mind right now, it's about trying to help those people in Syria.

Werman: I saw a photo posted on Twitter the other day from Aleppo and I don't even have a city to compare it to. Dresden, Grozny in Chechnya, Fallujah? It's just shocking. I'm wondering how some of the sites there, like this ancient citadel near the souk and other nearby sites which have been hit. What have you heard about these sites?

Danti: Well, I see what's on people's blogs occasionally, things that are coming through mainly from cell phone photography and what we're seeing is really, really shocking. You can barely recognize some of these places that we visited constantly over 20 years. The damage is hard to really imagine. The hearts of Aleppo and Homs and Damascus have these old cities that are suffering terribly during the conflict, obviously, so I feel that really the potential for damage is far greater than what we saw previously in the Iraq conflict.

Werman: Describe the citadel for us. What does it look like? What is it?

Danti: Right at the center of the city there's an archaeological mound that has thousands of years of archaeological deposits, on top of which is this imposing castle, right in the center of the city overlooking the souk. So of course it's of military significance. Most of the major thoroughfares in Aleppo converge in the center of that old city. That gives it particular strategic importance. the pictures that I've seen mainly show the monumental gateway, and it has clearly been nearly demolished from, probably, artillery rounds, rocket rounds, and automatic gunfire.

Werman: It sounds like you're saying the fighters on both sides of the conflict in Syria see the citadel as a strategic point.

Danti: Yeah, they see it as a strategic point and I get the feeling that they all understand the value of having stories in which cultural heritage is a part of the media mix.

Werman: Right. Explain that.

Danti: Well, going back to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in May 2001, the recent rumors in Egypt about the destruction of the pyramids, or the wanton destruction in Mali, I think that a lot of insurgent groups and governments understand that the cultural heritage aspect gets play, particularly in western media, and I think that sometimes it's a case of the tail wagging the dog a little bit in terms of what's going on. I think that sometimes, obviously, these sites are purposefully targeted, and there is the psychological warfare dimension of destroying cultural heritage. We see that on both sides of the conflict.

Werman: Are you saying that even having this discussion right now we're kind of playing into it?

Danti: A little bit, yeah. And that's one of the difficult things about talking. We really want to make people aware of what's going on. We want people to know that there's monitoring going on to try to protect these sites. But at the same time, we feed the problem I think a little bit.

Werman: Let's move away from Aleppo to the province and see what other information you might have. I mean, there are any number of historical treasures across Syria. In the city of Homs, which has been in the crosshairs almost from the start of the uprising, there's this medieval fortress called the Krak des Chevaliers, it's kind of a mixed-up French and, I don't know, krak might be Arabic. What's happening to it? What is it?

Danti: The Krak des Chevaliers is a Crusader fortress that was built, I believe, in the 12th century, and by most accounts, for example Lawrence of Arabia's account, it was the best preserved castle we have, at least in the Mediterranean region. It was enormous. It had a very famous chapel inside of it. And unfortunately we do know that it has been shelled. It was occupied probably by Free Syrian Army forces and then they were dislodged, we think, from artillery fire and that chapel was damaged during that. The oasis city of Palmyra we know that tanks are parked in the Roman part of the city, and the museum at the site of Palmyra has been looted, reportedly by government troops who pulled up pickups and took sculpture away.

Werman: Michael, what's being done in archaeological circles, either in the US or internationally, to try and keep the damage in Syria to a minimum?

Danti: Well, currently, again, the emphasis is on trying to help our colleagues and our friends in Syria, but at the same time we're trying to gather together as much information on what's happening as possible, and hopefully someday we'll get to go back and assess the damage and try to put things right again. But for my own part, I'm now working in Iraq. We've moved on to a different region.

Werman: Michael Danti, assistant professor in archaeology at Boston University. Thank you so much.

Danti: My pleasure. Thank you.

Werman: The widening crisis in Syria is reflected in political cartoons around the globe. You can see some of them in our latest cartoon slideshow at TheWorld.org.