In 2013, as the war escalated, UNESCO placed all six on its List of World Heritage in Danger, a designation it hoped would “mobilize all possible support for the safeguarding of these properties”. But the conflict was to wreak havoc and the violence prevented UNESCO from working to repair the damage. Today, as the war draws to a close, cultural experts still struggle to access heritage sites and they fear that no one is working to protect them.
The destruction over the past decade has been extensive. The Krak des Chevaliers, or al-Hosn Castle, was hit in 2012 and 2013, damaging at least one tower. The ancient city of Palmyra was ravaged by Islamic State militants, who partially blew up a Roman amphitheater, which they used for public executions, and destroyed temples and the huge triumphal arch honoring the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. UNESCO condemned the demolitions as a “war crime”.
The government now controls five of the six World Heritage sites and has reopened them to tourists. But UNESCO says it has carried out assessment visits to only three of the sites, citing security concerns. Since 2011, experts have been unable to reach the Krak des Chevaliers in western Syria, as well as the Qal’at Salah El-Din, a fortress dating from the Byzantine era, and the ancient Roman city of bosrah.
“Restoration and recovery of cultural heritage sites and cities can only take place after the conflict is settled,” said the UNESCO World Heritage Center when asked about the lack of access.
UN intervention in Syria has been limited to humanitarian issues, the World Heritage Center wrote in an email, saying it “supports the protection of Syrian cultural heritage from afar”. On the one hand, we assess the damage caused to cultural heritage, using remote sensing techniques. … On the other hand, we give advice on how to prepare for the restoration of World Heritage damaged by the conflict.
Footage from the Krak des Chevaliers dance party last month alarmed experts, who already feared the government was putting tourism ahead of preservation.
Amid criticism, Western tourists return to battered Syria
“Forget raves and all that: you usually have big [foot] visitor traffic, and all of that causes wear and tear on a site,” said Amr Al-Azm, a Syrian professor of Middle Eastern history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio who worked in the country before the war. “As a custodian of a site, you always try to balance the needs of local communities, the needs of site protection and the needs of site maintenance.”
The problem today, Azm said, “is that there is no oversight. We don’t know who is responsible, and there is a history of using these sites for unconventional functions, which then resulted in significant damage to the site itself.
Azm recalled an example from before the war, in the early 2000s, when air conditioners were mounted on the roof of the Aleppo citadel for a conference at the World Heritage site. The resulting damage to the ancient walls caused a scandal and led to an investigation.
“When you don’t have oversight, and someone comes in and does something like that, you end up with a lot of significant irreparable damage to the site itself,” Azm said. Such damage could lead to sites being removed from the World Heritage List, which happened with Liverpool’s Victorian Docks after UNESCO concluded years of development had caused “irreversible loss”.
Instead of bringing in international experts, the Syrian Ministry of Culture and event organizers say they are doing everything possible to ensure venues are handled with care.
When 30-year-old Michael Atallah and his partners launched their entertainment business Siin Experience, their goal was to bring electronic music to Syria and marry it with the country’s famous heritage – Sin was the name of the Mesopotamian god of moon. They wanted to interest young Syrians in ancient sites, which most had only visited on dreary school trips.
Atallah lost track of how many venues they applied for before finally getting permission to hold the rave at Krak des Chevaliers. To help get the idea across, he said, they showed the Ministry of Culture examples of concerts at other ancient sites, such as those held at the Roman-era Roman Theater of Orange in France. “We always try to show them that it’s being done overseas,” he said.
The band then hired a musical engineer from Lebanon – the regional destination for electronic raves and parties in general – who pays particular attention to the effect of vibrations on old structures. It wasn’t just about preservation, Atallah said. He also feared that old stones would break loose and fall on the crowd.
The organizers had initially planned their event inside the fortifications, but the Ministry of Culture refused them access after studying the request.
“We haven’t penetrated an inch of the castle,” Atallah said.
The event, attended by 1,200 people, took place in the outdoor car park, with the ancient castle walls serving as a backdrop for DJ decks. Lasers shot through the stone structure, sometimes tracing purple and green lines along the edges, creating the impression of a massive childish drawing of a black castle surrounded by neon lights. Then red lights flooded the place, bringing the walls to life.
Atallah hopes this will be the first of a succession of parties at historical sites. From the famous Khan Assad Pasha, a caravanserai in old Damascus, to the court of the citadel of Damascus, he wants to show what his tired country still has to offer.
“People come to you at the end of the night and say, ‘You’re helping me stay in this country,'” he said. Everyone – the organizers, the musicians, the crowd – can finally “dump all the negative energy that we all feel”.