Syrian Activists Appeal to UNESCO For Aid as Violence Threatens the Country's Ancient Sites

Syrian Activists Appeal to UNESCO For Aid as Violence Threatens the Country's Ancient Sites
Omari Mosque's minaret towers over Daraa
(Courtesy Getty Images)

The casualties of Bashar al-Assad's bloody crackdown in restive Syria number in the thousands. Now, the embattled Syrian opposition forces in the Movement for National Change are calling attention to the cultural toll of the brutal onslaught. The group has called upon world heritage organization UNESCO to protect historical sites allegedly being damaged by the Syrian army. The appeal seems to be largely symbolic, since it is unlikely that UNESCO will be able to fully assess the situation, much less to take an active role in heritage protection there, until the political situation is stabilized. 

The Movement for National Change letter to UNESCO declares that "Bashar al-Assad's savage regime... destroys human lives and also human heritage that is over 6,000 years old by bombing mosques, churches, [and] fortified castles...," Le Journal des Arts reports. According to the group, the Omari Mosque in the southern province of Dara'a has been damaged by bombs — last year, the New York Times reported that government forces fired upon demonstrators in the Mosque — as has the Saint Elian Church in Homs. (Homs has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the country; Dara'a was the starting point of the Syrian uprising, and clashes there have escalated in recent days, with both the media and humanitarian organizations being denied access to the city.)

Véronique Dauge, who heads the Arab section of UNESCO's World Heritage department, told Le Journal du Dimanche last week that there has been only limited damage or looting to Syrian heritage sites. "The sites that we have been able to visit have not been purposefully and systematically attacked," Dauge said. But archaeologist Jean-Claude Marin expressed a somewhat different view of the situation in Syria. "The looting is not spectacular, but it is certainly there," he told Le Journal du Dimanche. "It takes place in the form of direct attacks on specific sites or clandestine searches in storehouses holding historic pieces."