Bombings, lootings, the refugee crisis and weather elements have all contributed to the destruction of the country's oldest artefacts. Now, a team of historians are joining hands to ensure what still stands will remain intact.
The historic city of Idlib is home to a third of Syria’s historical treasures. In fact, more than 750 settlements are scattered across the country’s northern region alone.
“Idlib contains 40 ancient villages, five ancient parks and two museums that are all recognised by the United Nations,” says Ayman Nabo, a researcher who is studying for a Master’s degree in history at Idlib University. Nabo also oversees a civil society body tasked with protecting monuments in rebel-held areas.
He has spent most of his career documenting the violations and crimes that have been committed against the heritage sites since the Syrian civil war broke out.
The centre reunites several researchers and academics who have devoted their work to safeguarding Syria’s neglected sites.
Yet there is more to the northern region than meets the eye. In 2011, the arch between Idlib and Aleppo, otherwise known as the “Forgotten Cities”, which span 47 square miles, were all listed as UNESCO world heritage sites.
It is believed that these cities flourished in par with trade routes. The Arab conquest of the region led to a change in the trade routes, which resulted in people moving to other cities between the 8th and 10th centuries.
The site is home to the remains of a civilisation that dates back to the eras of archaism and early Christianity.
Amid the ruins are churches, dwellings, pagan temples and bathhouses.
“The mosaics in the Marrat Numan museum northern Idlib, for instance, show the incredibly rich animal life that once thrived in the area, which includes bears, lions, tigers, leopards, elephants, bulls, gazelles, ostriches, ducks and many other birds,” says Diana Drake, a Syrian specialist and Middle East cultural expert.
“The mosaics range in date from the 3rd century to the 6th century and were gathered from nearby Roman and Byzantine villas, showing the earlier wealth of the region. One shows the baby Hercules wrestling with snakes. The mosaics were housed in a 16th-century caravanserai, the largest in Syria, at 7,000 square metres. The museum in the town centre was badly damaged by aerial bombing in 2015, 2016 and 2018. In addition, some 30 items were looted in 2013.”
To add insult to injury, locals had never cared much for preserving their heritage and often could be seen using remnants to build new houses.
“Large waves of displacement among locals over the past years drove thousands of families to seek refuge among the ruins,” says Nabo.
“Our role is to raise local awareness of the importance of these locations among local inhabitants as well in order to encourage them to help preserve the sites, not exploit them. We work alongside local bodies to set up legislations to punish anyone who digs, steals or violate the sanctity of history. Occasionally, we conduct check-ups to the historical sites and document attacks staged by Assad or Russian forces.”
Their work also includes minimising environmental damage to the sites.
“We fortified the Ishtar temple to ensure part of it doesn’t collapse and built a supportive pillar to stop a nearby ancient wall from disintegrating as well,” says Nabo.
It goes without saying that amid the ruins lies the country’s economy, which relied heavily on tourism pre-2011. Still, pockets of visitors exist in isolated areas that have been largely left alone after period fighting.
Qalb Lozeh, a historic church in northern Syria that is only a few kilometers away from the Turkish border, was spared the bombardment but remains a ghost town.
“Qalb Lozeh lies high in the mountains and was a transit spot for pilgrims who were on the way to the St Simeon monastery, where they would then stay at the inns at the foot of the famous hermit St Simeon's pillar,” says Drake.
“Before the war, there was a guardian who sold tickets and unlocked the gates for visitors to enter,” he said. “Despite the extensive fighting that took place between the area's Druze inhabitants and Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group of extremist Islamists), the structure itself does not seem to have suffered damage.”
“Thankfully, the church still attracts many local tourists since it is one of few historical sites that haven’t been affected by the war,” said Ayoub Kharmo, head of the Jabal Al-Somak local council in which the church can be found.
“Historical sites have long since bore the brunt of thugs looking to make money, but they have thankfully been brought to book.”
Locals have stepped up security around the church at their own risk.
“We hope tourists will continue to come back so we can remember life as it was before war ripped through the country.”