Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “UNESCO”

Scandal in Sebastia

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Landscape around Sebastia [DD, 2016]

This peaceful biblical scene of rolling hills with olive groves and flocks of sheep conceals a scandal about which the international community has remained largely silent.

Hidden behind the cluster of trees in the central background stands the abandoned Sebastia railroad station, a branch line of the Hijaz Railway to nearby Nablus.

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Ruins of the 1914 Ottoman railway station of Sebastia, a branch line of the Hijaz Railway, in use till the 1948 war. [DD, 2016]

A takeover was staged here in July 1976

Israelis occupying Sebastia railway station

Israelis occupying the land around Sebastia railway station 1976

Menachem Begin at Sebastia 1976

Menachem Begin at Sebastia

by the Zionist group Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) on the pretext of its proximity to the ruins of Samaria, ancient capital city of the Kingdom of Israel built by King Omri. The demonstrators demanded that the area be settled by Jews and the newly elected Prime Minister Menachem Begin helped ensure that the settlement of Shavei Shomron (Returnees of Samaria) was founded the following year. Today its population tops 1000, a mix of Zionists and Modern Orthodox Jews. In 2013 it began pumping its sewage into nearby Palestinian fields, killing crops.

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View of Shavei Shomron, Israeli settlement below Sebastia [DD, 2016]

The above photo of the Israeli settlement was taken in spring 2016 from the Palestinian Arab town of Sebastia, named after the archaeological site alongside it, the same site the Israelis prefer to call Samaria. The Palestinian and Israeli tourist brochures reflect this split identity: the Israeli ones end with descriptions of the Greek, Roman and early Byzantine settlements, omitting any mention of the thriving Arab Christian and Muslim communities that lived here till the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Their presence, let alone the continued presence of the Palestinians living in the town of Sebastia, designated Area A, does not suit the Israeli narrative.

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Sebastia, the ruins in the foreground are designated Area C (full Israeli civil and security control, c63% of West Bank) , the car park Area B (Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control, c22% of West Bank) and the Palestinian town of Sebastia in the background Area A (full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority, c18% of West Bank) under the 1993 Oslo Accords [DD, 2016]

Using their well-tested technique of  ‘incrementalism’, Israelis have, step by tiny step, been laying the groundwork for a takeover of the archaeological site of Sebastia through turning it into one of their many national parks, the same technique they have used all over the Golan Heights to claim such areas as ancient Banias, City of Pan. Now it is a race against time to get the site adopted by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site to protect it from further Israeli designs.

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Bulldozer damage to the theatre at Sebastia carried out in 2014 by Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority doing ‘maintenance’ [DD, 2016]

When driving to Sebastia in the West Bank this spring with my family hoping to walk sections of Abraham’s Path, a cultural trail aimed at uniting communities through sustainable tourism and socio-economic development, I did not expect to be chased by an Israeli jeep full of armed soldiers and told it was too dangerous. Thankfully, I ignored them. We stayed for three days in Sebastia’s Palestinian guesthouse, enjoying the warmth of Palestinian hospitality. Before 1967 Sebastia was the number one tourist site in the region. Now hardly anyone comes except coachloads of Israelis who are bussed straight to the site and taken round under military escort, forbidden from entering the historic Palestinian town with its Crusader church of John the Baptist in the main square. As a result no tourist revenue reaches the Palestinian residents.

Photos from Golan and West Bank trip Feb 21-29 2016 896

Sebastia’s Palestinian  guesthouse open to all [DD,2016]

We walked alone without a guide in the hills, following trails from Walking Palestine by Stefan Szepesi. We never locked our car or our rooms. I urge everyone to visit Sebastia and make up their own mind about where the danger lies.

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The hills around Sebastia [DD, 2016]

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The lower slopes of Sebastia with the Hippodrome pillars in the background [DD,2016]

Related articles:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/db0971c2-2723-11e6-8b18-91555f2f4fde.html#axzz4AQ7z9xnN (‘Good News’ for Israel)

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/annexing-archaeology-unesco-israel-160519051718915.html (Annexing archaeology: Will UNESCO take on Israel?)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36322756 (New Palestinian Museum opens without exhibits)

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/03/ancient-sebastia-threatened-israeli-settlement.html (Ancient Palestinian Village Threatened by Israeli Settlement)

https://electronicintifada.net/content/sebastias-living-community-sidelined-ancient-ruins/9776 (Sebastia’s living community sidelined for ancient ruins)

http://www.wrmea.org/2016-january-february/israels-master-plan-for-judaization-of-palestine-continues-apace.html (Israel’s ‘Master Plan’ for Judaization of Palestine Continues Apace)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36441313 (Israel-Palestinian two-state solution ‘in serious danger’)

Syria’s Antiquities Chief comes to London

Syria’s Director-General of Antiquities and Museums made his first ever trip to the UK yesterday, on what he described as a one-day visit, ahead of similar visits to Paris and Rome. The most surprising thing was that he was granted permission to exit Syria, and the second was that he was granted a visa to enter the UK. The Syrian government is very keen, ahead of the Vienna talks, to show its cultural face.

DGAM director

And Professor Dr Maamoun Abdulkarim did a good job. In his 45 minute talk, accompanied by many images, the DGAM head addressed a large audience of over 500 in the Royal Geographical Society’s Ondaatje Lecture Theatre, in halting but intelligible English for which he apologised, saying his English was “new”, only learnt 18 months ago. French is his main foreign language. The talk was titled “Syrian Cultural Heritage during the Crisis 2011-2015” and was supported by the World Monuments Fund Britain.

The DGAM chief steered a careful course, talking of “one heritage for one people, no politics, humanity heritage”. He described how he and his 2,500 staff in the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums were in charge of Syria’s 10,000 sites, 34 museums and their 300,000 artefacts, doing their best, working in both government-held and opposition-held areas of the country, with the cooperation of local people. He told how they had emptied 99% of the contents of the museums and carefully boxed them up, after first doing detailed database information on them, then put them in safe places with anti-theft alarms and extra guards. He hoped that in two or three years’ time, the collections might be able to be brought out again and returned to display in the museums.

DGAM empty museums

Three hundred of his ex-students were among the staff helping, he said, showing pictures of them preparing the thousands of packing cases.

He showed photos of the damage in Homs old city, saying they were now restoring the churches, and that the damage inside Krak des Chevaliers was being repaired – Phase One of the repair was complete and the castle was open, he said.


At Maaloula he also said journalists had been allowed in to see repair work at the monastery of Mar Serkis. No mention was ever made of which side had caused the damage – unless it was ISIS.

At Palmyra he showed the before and after photos since the ISIS takeover in May 2015, promising that he would rebuild the Temples of Bel and Baal Shamin, the Triumphal Arch and the funerary towers. They had the necessary documentation, he insisted. He paid tribute to Palmyra archaeologist Khaled al-As’ad, beheaded by ISIS.

DGAM Khaled al-As'ad

In Bara and other Cities of the Dead he said they had successfully persuaded local people living in the ruins after their homes had been bombed, not to cause damage to the stones by lighting fires. He mentioned that these 700 Byzantine era towns were his own speciality.

In Apamea, Doura Europos and Ebla he showed photos of massive-scale illegal digging and looting, but said that in Ebla they had now secured the site against further damage. He showed photos of the mosaic museum at Maaret Numan and said they had protected it with the help of local people. In Bosra he showed photos of people clearing the vegetation from the tiers of the Roman theatre, saying they were working with the opposition groups now controlling Bosra, to protect the site.

He spoke of how 6,000 stolen artefacts had been recovered by Syrian police. He thanked INTERPOL, UNESCO, ICOMOS and the World Monuments Fund, and expressed his gratitude to expert help from the British Museum and Durham University.

He ended by saying he had felt “isolated” by the international community because he was “public” (working for the government), but hoped that everyone could come together to help save Syria’s cultural heritage in a way that was “scientific, not political.”

He received loud applause, was praised as “a hero” by his host, John Darlington from the World Monuments Fund, and was then rushed off to an interview with Sky News.



(the new Arabic/English website of Syria’s DGAM)



Saving #Syria’s Cultural Heritage – how to help

Bricking up the 13th century prayer niche of the Halawiye Madrasa, Aleppo

Bricking up the 13th century prayer niche of the Halawiye Madrasa, Aleppo

Little known and little recognised, groups of Syrians inside Syria are working together to try to save the destruction of their country’s cultural identity. Confronted with the inertia of the international community, the occasional statement and handwringing from UNESCO and the Syrian government’s own narrative presenting itself as the custodian of the country’s rich treasures, these groups are taking matters into their own hands. A mix of academics, archaeologists, students and ordinary citizens with a deep love for their country, they have almost no funding and most are volunteers.

Protecting the tomb of the Prophet Zachariah, inside the Aleppo Great Mosque

Protecting the tomb of the Prophet Zachariah, inside the Aleppo Great Mosque

A recent study (by Heritage for Peace see link below) has shown that 38 organisations are involved worldwide in efforts to highlight the damage to Syria’s cultural heritage, including the big names like UNESCO, Blue Shield, the Global Heritage Fund, the World Monument Fund, ICCROM and ICOMOS. The overwhelming majority are talking shops, gathering data and posting it online. They are largely based outside Syria and function only through the official channel of the Syrian Directorate-General of Museums and Antiquities (DGAM) which in turn only functions in the regime-held areas of the country. Of these 38 organisations, 14 have been formed since 2011 specifically in response to the Syrian crisis, mainly from volunteer groups. Only six of the organisations are Syrian, working on the ground inside the country, and of these only three that we are aware of are taking pro-active, pre-emptive measures to protect ancient buildings. It is a chronic state of affairs, but such is their commitment to doing whatever they can that they are prepared sometimes even to risk their lives in order to protect and save their cultural identity.

Bricking up Zachariah's Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

Bricking up Zachariah’s Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

Aleppo, once Syria’s largest and richest city, is where such actions have been most prevalent. The Division of Antiquities of the Free Council of Aleppo was founded in 2013 and has sandbagged and walled up the precious sundial in the Aleppo Great Umayyad Mosque, and bricked up its shrine of the Prophet Zachariah. With the help of the Tawhid Brigade from the Free Syrian Army, they have dismantled its 12th century wooden mihrab for safe-keeping away from the front line.

The Syrian Association for Preserving Heritage and Ancient Landmarks was founded in Aleppo in 2013. Its members, many of them archaeology students from Aleppo University, at considerable risk to themselves, saved the stones from the fallen minaret of the Great Umayyad Mosque and have put them safely elsewhere awaiting reconstruction after the war. They also helped the Free Council of Aleppo with protecting the sundial and removing the mihrab.

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) was founded in 2012 in Strasbourg by a group of Syrian archaeologists and journalists. Together with collaborators on the ground they have compiled an extensive website cataloguing the damage (www.apsa2011.com) and have also held short workshops in Turkey’s Gaziantep to train Syrians in techniques of how to record damage and how to carry out simple protection measures.

Syrian aircraft dropping barrel bombs to dislodge rebels from the Byzantine Dead City of Shanshara, Idlib Province

Syrian aircraft dropping barrel bombs to dislodge refugees sheltering in the Byzantine Dead City of Shanshara, near Al-Bara, Idlib Province

A team goes to document the damage at the Dead City of Shanshara, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed in June 2011, Idlib Province

An APSA team goes to document the damage at the Dead City of Shanshara, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed in June 2011, near Al-Bara and Kafaranbel, Idlib Province

All of this work goes unrewarded financially and unrecognised internationally. Syria’s concentration and range of cultural heritage sites far exceed that of neighbouring Iraq. Yet while Iraq benefited from a UN resolution in 2003 after the US invasion banning trade in its antiquities, the Syrian case has been largely ignored, complicated by politics. Stepping up to the challenge, the Global Heritage Fund UK has recently agreed to help by acting as a channel for funds for anyone who would like to help support this work. The sums involved are small by the standards of international organisations. But international organisations like UNESCO cannot operate inside Syria without the permission of the Syrian government – a permission which has not been forthcoming.

APSA is looking to raise £32,000. So far they have raised £6,400. If each of the 624,000 people who clicked to view the recent BBC feature highlighting the problem (see below) had been able to contribute just £1, the target could have been met 20 times over.

Anyone who would like to do something tangible to help can contact cgiangrande@globalheritage fund.org, or use the donation form below. Even small amounts will make a huge difference. Handwringing and nostalgia, alas, do not.

Global Heritage Fund – 2014DonationFormV2

Related links:

Click to access Towards-a-protection-of-the-Syrian-cultural-heritage.pdf



Presentation given on 30 June by Diana Darke and Zahed Tajeddin to the Global Heritage Fund UK on saving Syria's Cultural Heritage

Presentation given on 30 June by Diana Darke and Zahed Tajeddin to the Global Heritage Fund UK on saving Syria’s Cultural Heritage


#Syrian Heritage – the world’s most perfect Crusader castle

Krak des Chevaliers and its aqueduct [DD, 2010]

Krak des Chevaliers and its aqueduct [DD, 2010]

“”Grace, wisdom and beauty you may enjoy, but beware pride which alone can tarnish all the rest” is the inscription carved in Latin on a window lintel of Krak des Chevaliers, Crusader castle par excellence. A simple sentiment, more apt today perhaps even than it was in the 12th and 13th century. It would have been composed by one of the Knights Hospitallers to whom the castle passed in 1144. Billeted there to bolster the Crusader presence, the knights were the invaders of the day who were as keen to maintain control of the strategic ‘Homs Gap’,  as the Assad regime is today.

As long ago as the 2nd millenium BC, the ancient Egyptians and the Hittites struggled here for control of the ‘Gap’ and Syria, culminating in the Battle of nearby Qadesh. It is the only flat route to the coast from inland Syria, a natural break in the north-south mountain chain. It also controls access to the Beqaa Valley.  Despite Ramses II’s propaganda machine, the battle was inconclusive, and the Egyptians and the Hittites ended up agreeing to a balance of power in which the Hittites controlled Aleppo and the coast from their Anatolian heartlands. Can we learn something from this, since none of the geography has changed, and the Assad regime has just retaken the castle stronghold after two years of rebel control?

No one talks of the cultural and spiritual loss inside Syria. It seems wrong maybe at a time when, on top of all the daily deaths that have become routine, polio, once eradicated, is making a comeback in Syria thanks to the war and its disastrous social health consequences. How can a Crusader castle compete with a devastating disease for attention?  Syria is being pushed out of the headlines by other crises like Ukraine and Crimea. One disaster at a time please. The human attention span is short, and getting shorter.

But as a wise friend expressed it recently, the wanton and careless destruction of a country’s heritage somehow makes it easier to destroy lives there too. Nothing is valued anymore, life and heritage become cheap in war.

At its peak in Crusader times, 2000 Knights Hospitallers lived inside Krak des Chevaliers, a bastion of Christianity in what was, and still is today, a region heavily populated with (Orthodox) Christians. The magnificent castle rebuffed two attempts by the indigenous Muslims, one under Nur Al-Din the other under Saladin, to capture it, but fell in the end thanks to a piece of Mamluk deception, a fraudulent letter supposedly from their garrison in Tripoli, telling them to surrender as there were no more reinforcements. They were offered safe passage to Tripoli on condition that they left Arab soil immediately after. They complied.

Under the Mandate the French cleared out the local civilians who had taken up residence inside and declared it a ‘monument of France’, but ceded it back to Syria to compensate for the damage done during their 1945 bombardment of Damascus. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006, (27 years later than the ancient city of Damascus in 1979) and has spent the last two years under rebel control, with the Syrian regime periodically shelling it to dislodge them. They finally succeeded a few days ago.



As the Parthenon is to Greek temples and Chartres to Gothic cathedrals, so is the Krak des Chevaliers to medieval castles, the supreme example, one of the great buildings of all time.” (TSR Boase, 1967)

Ribbed vaulting of the refectory Great Hall of the Krak [DD, 2010]

Ribbed vaulting of the refectory Great Hall of the Krak [DD, 2010]

Inside the Krak, a huge hall with kitchens, storage and latrines [DD, 2010]

Inside the Krak, a huge hall with kitchens, storage and latrines [DD, 2010]

Gothic loggia inside Krak's main courtyard: 'Apart from the cathedral of Tortosa, nothing of this period that survives in Syria can equal it in faultlessness of charm and elegance' (Boase, 1967) [DD, 2010]

Gothic loggia inside Krak’s main courtyard: ‘Apart from the cathedral of Tortosa, nothing of this period that survives in Syria can equal it in faultlessness of charm and elegance’ (Boase, 1967) Now it has been badly damaged.  [DD, 2010]

Echoes of Syria in Sidon’s Eshmoun Temple?

English: Base of a column from a temple dedica...

English: Base of a column from a temple dedicated to Hadad at the Eshmun temple in Bustan esh Sheikh, near Sidon, Lebanon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sea castle in Sidon, Lebanon

Sea castle in Sidon, Lebanon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Astarte's throne at the Eshmun temple.

English: Astarte’s throne at the Eshmun temple. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Half-buried in undergrowth beside  Lebanon’s Awali River lies the world’s best preserved Phoenician site, the Temple of Eshmoun. The guardian sits proudly in his hut, expecting anything but visitors – the FCO Travel Advice website has ringed Sidon in potentially dodgy ‘orange’ in recent months. Erratically signposted and hard to find,  the site sits on the northern outskirts of Sidon,  and a visit involves crossing the city’s first checkpoint. But everyone seemed friendly enough despite their guns, when I passed through a couple of weeks ago.

Known locally as Bustan Al-Shaikh, the Orchard of the Shaikh, the state of this 7th century BC site, surrounded by citrus groves, is shockingly neglected. A visit to the semi-swampy areas of the temple, with its ritual basins, bulls-head shrines and sacred pools, is like hacking your way through the Amazonian jungle. Your reward is to sit on the gigantic Throne of Astarte, Phoenician goddess of fertility,carved from one monumental piece of granite, flanked by sphinxes and hunting reliefs. Her consort, Eshmoun, was a Beirut hunter whom she transformed into a reborn healing god, later identified by the Greeks with Asklepios, god of Medicine. A gold plaque found here carried the snake coiled round a staff motif that still serves today as the symbol of the medical profession.

Even more shocking is the evidence of looting that clearly took place during the 15-years of the Lebanese Civil War. Whole sections of later Roman mosaic floors, including the beautiful Four Seasons mosaic, have been stolen, the missing sections now replaced with a plaster mix. After hostilities ended, and Israel retreated from southern Lebanon, UNESCO in 1996 inscribed it on the World Heritage ‘Tentative’ list, a bit late, as everything small worth lifting has gone. Thankfully the Throne of Astarte is protected by its sheer size, as it would require a crane to lift it.

Echoes of Syria again? Its remarkable Phoenician site of Amrit south of Tartous has a similar sanctuary with  sacred pool and central altar. Beside it is a large rock-carved stadium, site of the world’s first competitive sports games, predating the Olympics by several centuries. What will Amrit look like by the time Syria’s civil war has ended?

Phoenician Temple of Melqhart, Amrit, Syria

Phoenician Temple of Melqhart, Amrit, Syria (2010, Diana Darke)

Phoenician rock-cut stadium, Amrit, Syria

Phoenician rock-cut stadium, Amrit, Syria (2010, Diana Darke)

Syria’s Threatened Heritage


Aleppo (Photo credit: sharnik)

English: Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria Françai...

English: Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria Français : Temple de Bel, Palmyre, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)








So far the biggest single loss to Syria’s heritage has been the total destruction in April 2013 of the 11th c Seljuk minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque.  It is the equivalent to the complete loss of say, Big Ben, to the skyline of London. Like Big Ben it is not just a building, but part of the psyche of the city, something deep-seated and iconic that is hard to quantify as a loss, not just to the outside world but above all to the inhabitants of Aleppo.

The 50 metre-tall minaret, one of Syria’s most important medieval monuments, had survived earthquakes, fires and previous wars, but has now been reduced to no more than a heap of rubble, beyond reconstruction. Its delicate stonework and elegant tracery made it one of the earliest examples of a true Syrian Islamic style of architecture. Aleppo’s famous souks were burnt, and though the wooden doors and merchandise have all gone up in smoke, the stone vaulted roof for the most part survives.

UNESCO has now put all 6 of Syria’s  World Heritage sites on the endangered list, to draw attention to the threat that the ongoing war presents. The two famous Crusader castles of Crac des Chevaliers and Saladin’s castle together constitute one UNESCO site, and have so far suffered damage from shelling, but the damage is reparable. Palmyra’s Temple of Bel has been hit by shells, but that damage is also reparable. The so-called ‘Dead Cities,’ or ‘Forgotten Cities’ as the Syrian Ministry of Tourism preferred to call them, are in the heart of Idlib province and therefore in the thick of a war zone, but since they are entirely built of heavy stone blocks it is hard to damage them. So far the Roman theatre of Bosra in the south has escaped damage, as has the Old City of Damascus, since fighting and shelling has taken place in the capital’s suburbs rather than the old centre, unlike Aleppo and Homs.

Most destroyed of all so far have been other sites, not UNESCO-listed, such as the Roman mosaics displayed in the caravanserais of Apamea and Ma’arat Nu’man, which have been badly looted and pillaged. Lawlessness is a tragic side-effect of war, and it may well be that the worst and most serious damage to Syria’s heritage will come from looting rather than actual war-damage. Unfortunately, scum rises to the top in war.

Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. It is an 11th ce...

Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. It is an 11th century castle and was used in the Crusades. It was one of the first castles to use concentric fortification, ie: concentric rings of defence that could all operate at the same time. It has two curtain walls and sits on a promontory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo...

English: Minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, Syria Français : Minaret de la Grande Mosquée d’Alep, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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