Syria's Heritage Hangs By a Thread

Syria's rich cultural history is at risk of becoming another victim of the civil war.

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Six Syrian heritage sites are on the highway to the danger zone. On June 20, 2013, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization added six Syrian heritage sites to the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger. Twenty-seven months into Syria's civil war, the Syrian Arab Republic has found itself disproportionately representing the current list of 44 endangered sites.

And it's no wonder. According to the United Nations, there have been at least 93,000 deaths and roughly 1.6 million refugees since fighting began in March 2011 – not to mention significant damage to Syria's infrastructure. Compared to those very human numbers, the health of six ancient heritage sites – the Site of Palmyra, Crac des Chevaliers and Qal'at Salah El-Din, the ancient villages of Northern Syria, and the ancient cities of Damascus, Bosra and Aleppo – may seem like an afterthought, but UNESCO states unequivocally that "[t]he immediate, near-term and long-term effect of the crises on the cultural heritage of Aleppo cannot be overstated." Just like at the Sidi Yahya mosque and tombs in Timbuktu and the Bamiyan Province Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, what's at stake isn't just bricks and mortar, but Syria's cultural and historic identity.

Markers of culture and heritage help keep pluralist societies stable, and Syria is far from homogenous. Syria has a rich history with a great deal of foreign influence – it's been held by the Persians, Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads, Mamluks, Ottomans, and was administered by the French after the fall of the Ottoman Empire – all of whom have left their mark on the country's cultural landscape in one way or another. It's also religiously diverse, with (as of 2006) roughly 75 percent of its population Sunni, 13 percent Shiite, 10 to 12 percent Christian, and 3 percent Druze.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Now with religion entering the fray – Wahhabists siding with some of the rebels, Hezbollah with President Bashar Assad, and Christians finding themselves in between a rock and a hard place – Syria's pluralism is starting to crumble into a battle over who gets control over defining Syrian identity. As Neil MacFarquhar said in the New York Times:

Ultimately, the battle for Syria's future boils down to identity, whether Syrian society is by nature religious or secular, and how either identity might be represented by whatever replaces the stifling Baath Party. Will Syria's diversity tear it apart, or can a pluralistic, democratic nation that respects equal rights emerge from its jumble of rival religious sects, ethnic groups and age-old tribes?

In short, will Syria's failing pluralism result in the destruction of the "bricks and mortar" that act as testaments to its unique and diverse history? Whether it's the churches of the villages in Northern Syria or the mosques in the Ancient City of Aleppo, Syria's heritage sites are a testament to its diversity, complex history and strategic importance not only in the past, but also in the present. Destroying them is not simply "altering" the past – it is, quite literally, destroying it. As George Orwell wrote in "1984," "how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?"

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

Finally, the preservation of heritage is critical for countering extremism because of its importance to human dignity and identity, whether in Syria, Afghanistan or beyond. For the extremist, said Director General Irina Bokova in a speech before the Foreign Policy Association, "There is no world heritage. It doesn't exist." It's not just that these groups may find themselves disagreeing with some of the values of the past; rather, extremists do not (and cannot) believe in a shared cultural heritage when such dialectic runs counter to their own narrow interpretation of history.

In other words, where the lessons of history disagree, purge them. Erasing history – and therefore identities – provides the extremists a space in which to operate.

At the moment, Syria's heritage sites have been mostly damaged by crossfire, not by bands of extremists. For countries such as Afghanistan and Mali, however, trashing heritage sites was a matter of pride for radical Islamist factions. After the notorious destruction of the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan in March 2001, Mullah Mohammad Omar proclaimed, "Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them." Years later, a Malian Islamist faction desecrated a number of ancient tombs in Timbuktu after it fell to the separatists. Once a destination for tourists, the ancient city of Timbuktu faced a similar fate, the destruction allegedly stemming from "a divine order," according to those that carried it out. Syria may have not have yet reached this point, but only time will tell.

Aside from raising awareness, what can the international community do? Civilizations, critical theorist Michel Foucault once wrote, have clung to "positive values" just as much as they have to isolationism, and they're just as prone to iconoclasm as they are to iconophilia. Perhaps Syria is facing its iconoclastic moment.

Hannah Gais is assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association and editor of ForeignPolicyBlogs.com. You can follow her on Twitter @hannahgais.

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  • Corrected 7/8/13: This post originally misattributed Neil MacFarquhar's quote in the New York Times.