JABAL AL ZAWIA, Syria — A small group of rebel fighters made its way through limestone boulders and shrubbery in the tranquil silence of an orange-tinted dawn. The ruins of Roaiha caught their attention, but only for a moment.
They couldn't let the majesty of their surroundings distract from their dangerous mission: to detonate a bomb near a government tank in this abandoned city dating back to the time of Christ.
Ancient beauty, on this day, was a backdrop for destruction.
Since the war in Syria began in March 2011, the UN estimates that 60,000 people have died. But the story does not end with this tragic human cost. The irreversible destruction of Syria’s heritage continues.
UNESCO lists six World Heritage sites within Syria. Heading the list is the desert splendor of the once-great city of Palmyra and the majestic castle of Crac des Chevaliers. The old cities of Aleppo and Damascus are breathtaking, and the mysterious Dead Cities of Jabal al-Zawia incorporate Roaiha, where the fighters were hunting the government tank amid a patchwork of ancient homes and crumbling churches from the Byzantine era.
There are 12 more Syrian sites that remain on UNESCO's tentative list for world heritage status.
Syria's monuments tell the stories of 5,000 years of religion, architecture and human achievement. Today, they tell a more sorrowful tale. Archeologists say most of Syria's heritage sites have already been damaged by Syria's current conflict, and all of them are at risk of looting, damage and sabotage.
"Of every chapter in the history of mankind there was a page written in Syria," said Rodrigo Martín, an archeologist with the international organization Syrian Historical Heritage Under Threat.
Martin said Syria is crucial for tracing the development of the Iron Age. Syrian ruins show stunning examples of Greek, Roman and Ottoman influence. Syria's history includes sites of biblical, Islamic and Judaic importance.
It was the center of Aramaic culture, and the village of Malola near Damascus claims to be the only remaining town to still speak the language of Jesus Christ. The old city of Damascus, from which the apostle Paul famously escaped in a basket lowered from the city walls, is listed among the oldest inhabited cities in the world.
Near the ruins of Roaiha, the rebel group completed their mission successfully, destroying the tank and the government soldiers surrounding it. On the way back to base, another millenia-old city appeared on the horizon.
These stunning ruins dotted across the Zawia mountains form part of a network of some 600 ancient ghost towns. They are known as the Dead Cities due to the mystery that still surrounds the reasons for their sudden abandonment around the 8th century. They had survived largely intact until now.
During the course of the revolution, shelling has damaged some. Others appear to have been used as target practice. Their time-honored walls are now spray painted with flags and political graffiti.
After many more successful rebel missions, the whole of Jabal al-Zawia is now under full opposition control, but air raids and ground missiles continue to threaten locals and the Dead Cities alike.
Other sites have also been caught in the cross fire, like Aleppo’s ancient city. The souk, mosque and citadel have already been bombed, burned and shot at. Both government and rebel forces have set up base in these ancient ruins and continue to fight in the midst of these once treasured structures.
Other sites have been damaged deliberately. The Daraa Archaeological Directorate have registered over 100 acts of destruction and secret excavations of the cities ancient ruins since the Syrian conflict began almost two years ago.
Museums have also been targeted. In the Maarat al-Numan Museum in Northern Syria that once housed the largest collection of mosaics in the Middle East, everything moveable has been stolen. Of what remains, the destruction from ongoing air raids is heart breaking.
Other sites, liked the internationally famed Palmyra ruins, are impossible to reach or evaluate, but rumors of military action and looting are rife.
Martin said it is not just the fighting itself that concerns archeologists and historians.
“At this time, there is no authoritative power operating in much of the country,” he said. “This lack of control means illegal excavations and looting is going on everywhere.”
Martin explained that these excavations, when handled by amateurs, not only cause damage to delicate sites, but the removal of unrecorded pieces amounts to the loss of priceless information about the site itself.
“In archeological method, we do not study the pieces individually. They must be studied in context! Even if we can recover these pieces in the future, most of their value has already been lost,” he said.
Unconfirmed reports of truckloads of artifacts and priceless statues being shipped across the Lebanese border abound. Among the missing, an eighth century golden Aramaic Statue taken from the Hama Museum in 2011. The statue is so valuable Interpol, the world's largest international police force, have joined the search, listing it among their “most wanted” works of art.
On the Turkish border, artifacts arrive at a slow trickle. A smuggler working from Hacipasa who asked to remain anonymous explained how the system worked.
Mostly he deals in commodities, in particular fuel. As prices fluctuate, he is paid to transport these items from the border, past the Turkish army guards and into town to be collected by a third party. The value and origin of each item is not of his concern. His is paid only for the transportation. When a new city is being fought over by government and opposition troops along the border area, artifacts begin to arrive. Small stone crosses and what appeared to be small Christian sculptures were among the new arrivals last month.
When asked who brings these items and from where, he said it is not the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition group in Syria, but rather individuals or small gangs often claiming to be fighters who secure the items and smuggle them across the river into Turkey.
Martin agreed that, to his knowledge, looting and smuggling was being carried out by small armed groups, rather than a large network affiliated with a particular side.
“The opposition is very divided. The situation is not clear. It is impossible to know if they have connections with particular factions,” Martin explained. “But among our contacts with opposition leaders, they are very concerned with the protection of these sites.”
Martin said he had received many reports of Free Syrian Army fighters going directly to the towns' most important sites to protect them from looters.
“On both sides there are intellectuals that know the importance of these sites. I have no doubt, knowing their mindset, that members of the Ministry of Culture are doing their best to protect them,” Martin said. “But we don’t know how much they can do. They are reliant on a regime that is bombing and destroying its heritage.”
Martin says, although offenses are clearly being committed on both sides, ultimately, responsibility lies with the Syrian government.
“The regime has signed an international agreement for the preservation of this historical heritage, yet they are sending their army to bomb and shell the population and hitting these sites along with it,” he said.
The result is heartbreaking for residents like 70-year-old Taher Mahmud Alsaid, who has watched his hometown of Maarat al-Numan and its historical mosque, souk and museum ravaged by daily shelling and heavy looting.
"I feel sad and excruciating pain for this country, for the destruction that Bashar has inflicted. It is a kind of destruction that neither this country nor other Islamic countries have seen. He has not left anything undestroyed in this country."