Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “World Heritage Site”

#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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