In Syria’s Aleppo National Museum, curators are struggling to preserve the country’s cultural heritage amid civil war.
By Sam Dagher April 25, 2014
ALEPPO, Syria – One must dodge sniper bullets these days to get to the Aleppo National Museum, located on the edge of the historic center of this war-torn northern Syrian city.
Inside, the place looks more like a bunker than a cultural institution housing treasures from archaeological excavations across northern and eastern Syria over the past 100 years.
In the courtyard, a massive basalt stone lion from Arslan Tash—the site of an Iron Age kingdom east of Aleppo conquered by the Assyrians in the 9th century B.C.—is now almost completely covered with bags filled with sand and pebbles to protect it from mortars and rockets that often crash into the museum’s courtyard.
Nearby statues of goddesses, kings and warriors are similarly cocooned and camouflaged or completely entombed inside freshly made concrete blocks.
Exhibition halls are bare and glass display cases empty, covered in thick layers of dust. Artifacts like the prized second millennium B.C. cuneiform tablets from the ancient city of Mari have either been locked in the basement or shipped to the capital, Damascus.
Two of the museum’s curators and some of the guards and their families now live and sleep at the museum.
These people say they are doing everything possible, with meager and often primitive means, to protect the museum and spare it the fate of the nearby ancient walled city, now believed by several local experts to be 70% destroyed or severely damaged by the war. The old city, a living testament to Aleppo’s rich past at the crossroads of civilizations and trade routes that underwent an ambitious revival and restoration before the war, is now a war zone off limits to most people. It sits on the front line of battles between regime forces and rebels in a city partitioned by conflict.
Curator Ammar Kannawi said the world must do something to help salvage and protect what is left of Aleppo’s and Syria’s cultural heritage, which is now exposed to fighting and looting on a daily basis.
The international community and specialist organizations should give us technical support and share expertise from past situations in Iraq and Lebanon,” said Mr. Kannawi, as he was interrupted midsentence by the sound of a nearby explosion. “What we have is not just for Syrians but for the entire human civilization.”
Others are making similar pleas. “Why are we being left to plunge this low? Our identity is being erased,” said Nazir Awad, a Ministry of Culture official, breaking down in tears.
In August 2013 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which had classified Aleppo’s old city among six World Heritage sites in Syria, launched a three-year emergency plan to mitigate the destruction and loss. But with no access to most threatened sites, little has changed since then, and looted and smuggled Syrian artifacts now regularly surface in the West.
“As the people of Syria continue to endure incalculable human suffering and loss, their country’s rich tapestry of cultural heritage is being ripped to shreds,” said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other officials in a joint statement last month appealing to combatants to spare the country’s historic sites.
Bab al Faraj, or Gate of Deliverance, is the closest civilians can get to Aleppo’s historic center from the regime side. Here a landmark 19th-century clock tower and a 16th-century Ottoman mosque and cemetery still remain intact.
Soldiers and pro-regime militia fighters man several checkpoints and fortified positions to repulse any incursion by rebels into the western part of the city. Several bullet-ridden and abandoned cars previously caught in the crossfire are propped on the side next to the tower along with a display of empty shells and unexploded rockets.
An Aleppo native and old city enthusiast who was among the few to survey the damage inside during a lull in the fighting in February described in an interview what he saw.The man, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, said almost every structure is partially damaged, burned down or completely destroyed. Water from burst pipes has been seeping for months into the foundations of most buildings.
He said while the focus has been on the destruction of the minaret of the 12th-century Great Mosque one year ago, the mosque’s library, which contained priceless manuscripts and books, has been reduced to ashes. He said sections of the souks, a maze of vaulted passageways, are now gutted like a dollhouse after being ravaged by fire in 2012.
The old city is a unique collection of ancient temples, mosques, churches, bustling souks, caravansaries, traditional homes and narrow alleyways and streets spanning an area of about 1,000 acres. Nearly 240 structures have been classified as historic buildings by the Old City Directorate.
Before the war a German-funded urban renewal plan helped upgrade the infrastructure and many traditional homes, which had been crumbling at the time, while the Aga Khan Development Network renovated the medieval citadel that anchors the old city. Tourists flocked in droves, and people like Faisal Kudsi, a Syrian-born British banker who converted two traditional homes into opulent boutique hotels, invested.
“Today all you see are occasional fighters dashing in the alleyways and a terrifying silence sliced by gunfire from time to time,” said the man who surveyed the damage recently.
Both the regime and rebels accuse each other of the looting and destruction in the old city, but most Aleppans say both sides are equally responsible.
“Nobody dares to say this now, and when it’s over, well, it’s too late,” said an Aleppo physician.