The Endangerment of Syria’s World Heritage Sites: a Photo Tribute

Serjilla, Northern Syria
Serjilla, Northern Syria

On Thursday 20th June 2013, as part of the 37th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, it was decided to list all six of the Syrian Arab Republic’s World Heritage sites on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.   A week later, on the 27th of June, a suicide bombing and at least two additional attacks occurred near the city gate, Bab Touma, in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Damascus. Previously, the capital had largely been sheltered from the tragedy that befell the other 5 World Heritage sites of Bosra, Palmyra, Aleppo, Crac des Chevaliers and the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria.

The notion of sites (with their “archaeological parks”) is somewhat misleading. The inscription afforded to Damascus (1979) extends to the ancient city as does inscription of the ancient cities of Bosra (1980) and Aleppo (1986). Clearly this involves thousands of monuments.  Similarly, the Crusader castles of Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah el-Din (Saone) fall within their own determination (and meet the same criteria*). Lastly, the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria is a “catch-all” for over 40 villages in the limestone massif which bear witness to many varied histories of occupation. Syria has also proposed a further 12 sites for inscription. Since 1999, 11 of these heritage sites await determination.

You may well ask what does it actually mean to include a World Heritage site on a Danger List (especially in light of the wanton destruction that has characterised much of the Syrian Civil War and which has also been reported extensively in the international press). Cynicism aside, and in deference to well established (U.N.) tradition where few matters are ever straight-forward, to answer the above demands that a different question be answered first: what does inscription on a World Heritage List entail?

Inscription is enshrined in The UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972). It sets out the obligations for the State Party, in this case Syria, to identify potential sites. The Convention also details the role the State Party must play in the protection and preservation of World Heritage sites.  The Convention stipulates that, as a signatory, each country agrees to conserve not only World Heritage in its territory but also natural heritage. Furthermore, each State Party is obliged to report on a regular basis (in practice, yearly) to the World Heritage Committee on the state of conservation of their respective sites. In so doing, the World Heritage Committee can assess the conditions of the heritage sites (and establish any programs deemed necessary to maintain World Heritage standards).

There are many complex reasons why Syria failed to meet the requirements demanded of the World Heritage Committee. And there are also many reasons why it is important for the sites to find themselves on a Danger List. I don’t propose to discuss these arguments at the present time except to say that it is important that the Convention be honoured and that, as a consequence of the 37th session’s findings, these sites receive priority funding and a dedicated task-force, post-conflict.  Instead, I offer below a memory of the inscribed sites. The images were taken 9 years ago, well before the conflict, the carnage and the loss of life; this was a time when the country welcomed the stranger.   

Damascus with Citadel
Damascus with Citadel


Damascus - Old City
Damascus – Old City


Bosra: Roman Amphitheatre
Bosra: Roman Amphitheatre
Tetrapylon (civic hub - "roundabout") Palmyra
Tetrapylon (civic hub – “roundabout”) Palmyra


Aleppo: Citadel
Aleppo: Citadel
The Crusader stronghold: Crac des Chevaliers (with glacis)
The Crusader stronghold: Crac des Chevaliers (with glacis)
 Bara, Northern Syria
Bara, Northern Syria
Qal'at Seman (Monastery of St Simeon - masonry)
Qal’at Seman (Monastery of St Simeon – masonry)
Qal'at Seman, Monastery of St Simeon the Stylite
Qal’at Seman, Monastery of St Simeon the Stylite

*criteria for inscription

i] to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius [Damascus, Bosra, Palmyra]

ii] to exhibit an important inter-change of human values, over a span of time within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental art, town-planning or landscape design [Damascus, Palmyra, Crac des Chevaliers]

iii] to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation which is living or which has disappeared [Damascus, Aleppo, Ancient Villages of Northern Syria]

iv] to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage in human history [Damascus, Palmyra, Aleppo, Crac des Chevaliers, Qal’at Salah el-Din, Ancient Villages of Northern Syria]

v] to be an outstanding example of traditional human settlement, land use or sea use which is representative of a culture (or cultures) or human interaction with the environment especially where it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change [Ancient Villages of Northern Syria]

vi] to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living tradition with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works or outstanding universal significance [ Damascus, Bosra]

The author is grateful to Mrs. Emma Cunliffe of Durham University and author of Damage to the Soul: Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Conflict and Dr. Dorothy Loebel-King.

Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. The views expressed in the article above are those of the author alone.   @blitz_adam on Twitter

About the Author
Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. He is a member of PEN International. The views expressed in the article above are those of the author alone. Twitter @blitz_adam
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