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Syrian Civil War Threatens Destruction, Looting of Ancient Aleppo Heritage

October 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Until recently, Aleppo, Syria was a vibrant destination, attracting tourists to its famous souk, an eight-mile marketplace, and to the Citadel, one of the oldest castles in the world. But as violence has increased, the city's ancient and cultural landmarks are the next casualties of the Syrian Civil War. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Syria, the army announced that a four-day cease-fire will begin tomorrow, to coincide with the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha.

But the government reserved the right to respond to rebel attacks. One opposition group, the Free Syrian Army, gave a qualified backing to the truce, but also demanded that the government free captured fighters.

Meanwhile, there were new clashes today in Aleppo, where activists said 14 people died. And it is to Aleppo that we now turn for a closer look at one less-reported aspect of the ongoing violence.

As the conflict in Syria rages on, the death toll climbs. More than 34,000 people have been killed in the violence that began in March of last year. More than 350,000 refugees have left the country. A million more have been displaced from their homes in Syria. It’s a human tragedy on an immense and horrifying scale, but it’s also becoming clear that the battle between Syrian government forces and the rebel Free Syrian Army is taking another kind of toll on the country’s rich and historic cultural heritage.

A center of that heritage: Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, now a scene of destruction that we report nearly every night. But less known is this. Aleppo is considered perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited human settlement in the world, home to numerous civilizations layered on top of one another, including Hittites, Assyrians, Arabs, Mongols and Ottomans, that reach back to the beginning of recorded time.

JULIAN RABY, Freer Gallery of Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery: We have references to a place called Aleppo from roundabout 2000 B.C., and it’s clear that it had a certain antiquity then.

JEFFREY BROWN: Julian Raby is the director of the Freer and Sackler galleries in Washington and an expert in Middle Eastern art.

JULIAN RABY: It’s always been at a major crossroads, linking Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and also the Mediterranean.

This is a place that had different communities. You had Shiites, you had Sunnis. But, at the same time, you had a plethora of different Christian communities, and all built on what felt like a strata of not centuries, but millennia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many of the city’s architectural and cultural landmarks have long been designated as world heritage sites by UNESCO.

Until recently, the OldCity had been a vibrant place, with locals and tourists flocking Aleppo’s famous souk, an eight-mile-long marketplace where goods from throughout the region were bought and sold for centuries, signifying the city’s role as a major trading crossroads between east and west.

Another renowned site, the Citadel, was a large fortified medieval palace. The Great Mosque dates to the 12th century. Last week, it was damaged after rebel fighters attempted to take it from government troops who’d been holed up inside for several months. And, recently, fire raged through the souk.

NewsHour sent freelance video journalist Toby Muse to take a look at the situation in the OldCity. He found no commerce, no tourists, only war, the souk’s alley now a bombed-out ghost town, merchants and shoppers replaced by rebel fighters battling government snipers, shops with wares replaced by sandbagged fighting positions.

Just moments before Muse arrived, Syrian forces had shelled and destroyed a building, injuring two people. Around the corner, there were battle calls and more fighting.

Government helicopters arrived and sniper fire intensified. Muse had to flee the area after being grazed by a ricocheted bullet.

A particularly sad aspect to the destruction is that Aleppo has historically been home not only to layers of civilization and religions, but an interaction between them.

Julian Raby showed us an example in one of his museum’s most prized possessions, a large cauldron mixing images from both Muslim and Christian cultures.

JULIAN RABY: It’s an extraordinary object. It’s one of the most elaborate of all of these silver-inlaid vessels from the 13th century. But it’s extraordinary because it combines imagery that’s typical of Muslim princes. Polo.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, I see them on horseback playing.

JULIAN RABY: Right, playing, and then little vignettes taken from the life of Jesus.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this is literally the — the cultures intertwined.

JULIAN RABY: Intertwined.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, as the battles continue, outside experts fear the destruction of this cultural history will only grow.

KISHORE RAO,UNESCOWorldHeritageCenter: The fact that cultural heritage has been targeted in this conflict is really very tragic.  

JEFFREY BROWN: Kishore Rao is the head of UNESCO’s WorldHeritageCenter.

KISHORE RAO: I don’t think, I mean, we’re in a position to attribute blame to any one party, but surely it is the state party to the World Heritage Convention which is supposed to be responsible for taking care of its heritage.

And, in this case, Syria has clearly sort of ignored all international treaties that it has signed.

JEFFREY BROWN: UNESCO has complained to President Assad and the Syrian government, calling for protection of the heritage sites of Aleppo,, but RAO is not optimistic.

KISHORE RAO: The situation continues to be going from bad to worse.

And I might inform you that we have a mission which is on standby. We have experts who are ready to go to the country and to be able to make an assessment of the damage that has been caused. But, certainly, that can happen only when the security and safety situation improves.

JEFFREY BROWN: No one knows when that time will come, and Julian Raby says there may still be further problems for the city’s treasures if and when the fighting finally stops.

JULIAN RABY: One of the great worries now is that, as Aleppo moves from a battleground, does it become a ground for looting? Will all of this material be smuggled out and dispersed? So, it’s a real concern, not just for the monuments, not just for the fabric and the vitality of the city, but also for some of its most important artworks.

JEFFREY BROWN: People we talked to acknowledged that what’s happening in Aleppo and much of Syria today is first and foremost a human tragedy, and expressed a desire to end the killing and suffering of the country’s people, at the same time, a warning that goes beyond the daily headlines.

JULIAN RABY: To me, this is one of the great, great tragedies. Aleppo is a — it’s not just a museum of architecture. It is — it really captures a sense of the Middle East at its very, very best, this ability to have different communities living quite easily side by side in a very, very natural way.

JEFFREY BROWN: In other words, it’s not just buildings being destroyed, but a vital part of world culture and history that’s at risk, another casualty of Syria’s bloody civil war.

Online, you can watch a slide show of images from Aleppo’s souk, from a bustling marketplace in 2010 to shuttered and deserted shops today.