Experts warn Syria’s war risks ancient heritage

Tranquility: Palmyra showing a side of the country rarely seen in war reports.

Syria’s historic sites are in severe danger of being destroyed by the civil war, archaeologists warn. But is preserving art and culture worth as much as human life?

Four years ago, Jesse Cassana was in Syria uncovering ancient ruins. Now she can see the same site again on Google Earth — and the trench she worked in is occupied by tanks.

Syria’s cultural heritage is at severe risk of being destroyed by the civil war. On Tuesday top archaeology expert Paolo Matthiae launched his ‘Forgotten Victims’ campaign, warning that priceless treasures and ancient sites will be lost if the world does not act to protect them soon.

In the same week, while promoting his new film ‘Monuments Men’, actor and classicist Matt Damon has said his movie, about an army unit tasked with rescuing paintings from the Nazis, ‘asks if art is worth dying for’.

History has known war leaders who were willing to risk lives in battle, or kill enemies in revenge, but held art dear. When Saladin captured Jerusalem in 1187, he ordered that the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre be left untouched. When Napoleon attacked British-held Egypt at the end of the 18th century, he brought an army of archaeologists to examine ancient sites. More recently, locals in Timbuktu risked their lives to smuggle rare manuscripts out of an ancient library Islamists planned to destroy.

Syria’s marvels have not managed to escape the ravages of war. Aleppo’s beautiful medieval market has already been destroyed and the ancient crusader castle Crak de Chevaliers is damaged. All six of Syria’s UNESCO World Heritage sites have been fired on or looted and the remains of Apamea, a city founded in the third century, have been wiped out by fortune hunters’ illegal digging.

According to one commentator, both sides in the civil war are eradicating the past in order to ‘rewrite the history’ of Syria in their image. So precisely because it has national value, Syria’s heritage is under threat. But the way to protect and preserve it is through international action — ironically, this could mean treasures being taken out of the country to safety.

The lengths we go to in preserving world heritage shows how valuable it is to us. But some question what it can be worth risking to prevent a purely cultural tragedy in time of war.

Art or atrocity

Some will say ‘Monuments Men’ is right to depict art as worth more than life; some that both are beyond price and equally worth defending to our last breath. Syria’s ancient treasures are under attack precisely because they are tied not only to that nation’s history but to the whole human narrative.

Others will say it is revolting to worry about art works while real people suffer and die. That we can care more about inanimate objects than our fellow human beings is a failing. Art may be important, but it is essentially dead: our priority should always be the living.

You Decide

  1. Is it right that in wartime, armies and international organisations spend time, money and lives trying to rescue and preserve artworks?
  2. ‘Precious objects are better held in a museum, even if that is outside the country where they were made.’ Do you agree?


  1. Class debate: This House believes it is worth risking lives to save cultural treasures endangered by war.
  2. Make a map of the UNESCO world heritage sites inside Syria, explaining the cultural value of what they contain.

Some People Say...

“The essential act of war is destruction…of the products of human labour.’George Orwell”

What do you think?

Q & A

I really don’t care about these old pots and stones.
You might be interested, then, to find out how many countries are arguing over who has a claim to similar ancient monuments or artefacts. Most countries believe their art history is an important part of their national identity. But in places like Syria, which was part of the Roman Empire, the archaeological discoveries made there have wider value.
You mean the history matters?
Yes. And some of the sites are uniquely valuable: Syria has the best preserved Roman theatre anywhere in the world, for example. The connections may be hard to make, but just consider that the designers of modern venues are still trying to replicate the amazing acoustics in ancient amphitheatres today: that’s relevant to anyone who goes to a show.

Word Watch

Matt Damon studied classics at Harvard for four years, though he dropped out to pursue his acting career.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Otherwise known as the Church of the Resurrection, the church is built on the hill where Jesus is thought to have been buried and then risen. It is home to various Christian denominations, including Catholics, Protestants, the Eastern Orthodox church and Anglicanism. A place of worship has been on the site since at least 200AD, but many renovations and redesigns have occurred since.
Mali’s cultural capital Timbuktu was a centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th century, although some of the manuscripts contained in its libraries are one thousand years old. The ancient shrines and libraries were attacked by fundamentalists in 2012 because they considered the city’s ancient mystic brand of Islam heretical.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation aims to spread the benefits of education and preserve culture. There are almost 1,000 UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world: places believed to have significant cultural value for the entire world and therefore afforded extra protection from development. Italy has the greatest number of sites with 49, followed by China with 45.
Traditionally we have moved our art away from war zones into museums: the British Museum holds tens of thousands of the world’s treasures in the safety of London, but the nations where they originate protest constantly, and want them back.

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