Inevitable Destruction of Syria’s Heritage: the death of history

The destruction of a famous minaret dating from the Umayyad Dynasty in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, is a sad but unsurprising development in the increasingly bitter civil war that is tearing the country asunder.

Built on the site of a great 8th century Umayyad Mosque in 1090, the minaret dominated Aleppo's historic skyline
Built on the site of a great 8th century Umayyad Mosque in 1090, the minaret dominated Aleppo’s historic skyline
Now it lies in ruins
Now it lies in ruins

I warned in this blog a couple of months ago that the increasing intensity of fighting in Damascus and Aleppo had the potential to destroy some of Syria’s golden historical heritage. Whilst global attention has understandably remained trained on the awful civilian death toll and general suffering experienced by the population, the wanton destruction of one’s own culture is another destabilising factor that will not only increase the general misery of a proud people but make the country all that harder to rebuild.

The felling of regionally significant buildings such as the minaret at the Ummayad Mosque in Aleppo is in itself a crime against humanity. It is the eradication of history, of culture, traits that define national identity and societal unity. How is a population to share a future when it can no longer relate to a shared past?

In recent months, similar events have been seen in Mali, where Asar Dine philistines have destroyed some of the wondrous contents of Timbuktu’s famous shrines and libraries. The dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 is a further example of how radicalism, extremism and deluded ambitions have destroyed icons that, regardless of their religious affiliation, were important symbols of national prestige.

Non-Islamic heritage sites, such as Our Saidnaya Monastery, have also been damaged by fighting in Syria
Non-Islamic heritage sites, such as Our Saidnaya Monastery, have also been damaged by fighting in Syria

In Syria, extremism flourishes from both the Al-Assad regime and elements of its rebel challengers. Concern is not for nation, people or history; it is for power, control and suppression of any dissenting element at any cost.

UNESCO heritage sites abound in Syria; indeed, the notion of a Syrian land and people is almost as ancient as any other contemporary state. During the Middle Ages it was an important centre of Islamic learning and, as Europe slumped in a religiously-repressed Dark Age, the Middle East became the cultural and educational capital of the world. Within that, Syria almost predominated. The Ummayad had their capital at Damascus in the seventh and eighth centuries and their successors, the Abbasids, contributed further to Syrian heritage with the construction of libraries and educational institutions. The Seljuk Turks built great mausoleums and mosques for their rulers, many of which remained standing throughout Mongol rampages, Ottoman rule in the Early Modern period and European incursion in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Their survival has testified to the survival of Syria. For how much longer are we going to be able to say that?

How long for Damascus' Umayyad Mosque?
How long for Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque?
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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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