The ancient villages of Northern Syria include 40 villages clustered in eight sites located in the Limestone Massif. The buildings date back to the 1st through 7th centuries. The plethora of buildings includes churches, pagan temples, residential settlements, bathhouses, and cisterns among other things.
UNESCO has deemed The Villages of Northern Syria a World Heritage Site for three reasons.
- The villages provide insight into the lifestyles and culture of the middle east settlers in the limestone mountains during the 1st through 7th centuries.
- The impressive condition of the remaining structures allows for a detailed view of past civilization’s architecture. The extensive landscape of rural areas, churches, and pagan temples provide an important cultural context for the transition of pagan worship to Byzantine Christianity.
- The sites exhibit excellent use of soil, limestone, and water resources from past cultures. The sustainability of the groups living on the sites was shown with these factors. The short walls and economic layout of the sites and corresponding farm land also attest to the sustainability of past inhabitants.
The factors endangering the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria include warfare, looting, instability, and development. The Syrian war has caused these sites to become camps for displaced families and militant groups. These groups have caused damage to the sites, building quarries and camps over the ancient villages. The sites have also been bombed by air strikes and attacked by rebel groups.
A notable feature of the villages is the Byzantine Church of Saint Simeon. It was a place of worship, and it was home to Saint Simeon for forty years after it was constructed in 490 AD. This is one of the oldest standing Byzantine Churches in the world. It was damaged by an air strike in May of 2016. Ms. Irina Bokova (2016), the Director-General of UNESCO, stated that the damage was extensive, and destroyed the remaining pillars of the Church.
The Syrian War has led to damage or destruction of all six of the UNESCO sites in the country. Some of the sites are located in contested territory, and are ravaged by soldiers during the war. Other sites, like the Church of Saint Simeon, have been hit by air strikes. According to AAAS (2014), the war has had a devastating effect on the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria. Several aspects of the war effect sites differently based on their location in the country. Satellite images of the sites have provided information about the changes made to the protected zones over the past few years.
- Internally displaced person camps have been placed all over Northern Syria, some located on or near the protected sites in Jebel Zawiye as well as Jebel Seman. There is concern that these camps will cause damage to the areas under protection, as well as bringing an influx of armed combatants into these places.
- Military compounds have been constructed on Jebel Barisha, destroying the remaining structures in the process. Armored vehicles have been spotted on the site, and The village of Dar Qita was damaged to make way for a new road in the contested area.
- Jebel A’la and Jebel Seman 3 have not seen any damage from the current war in the country
- Jebel Seman 1 was damaged by a road construction leading to a quarrying operation located inside the protected park. The same mining operations were seen in Jebel Seman 2, but at a larger scale.
- Jebel Wastani showed signs of new development, most of which was near settlements, and posed no threat to the archaeological site
Archaeologist have not been able to asses the damages to these sites because the war still continues. This makes these areas dangerous, especially to non-Syrian citizens. Radical groups have been spotted near these sites, and the risk of losing lives of the archaeologists is not one that can be taken.
These devastating outcomes of war are only a part of the heritage loss in this nation. Museums and sites have been looted for years, leading to a very strong illicit market of antiquities leaving the country. UNESCO (2014) has gotten together with the United Nations to try and combat the looting. The groups have compiled several pieces of international legislation that target the purchase and sale of artifacts from the war affected countries. The Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970) and the World Heritage Convention (1972) are the main two things that protect heritage on a global scale.
Archaeologists in the past have studied conflict in the past, and there has been debate about whether or not warfare is hard wired into human DNA. Jeremy Sabloff (2008), the author of Archaeology Matters, believes that warfare is not an innate human behavior, but rather a product of early city states. He also believes that war can be avoided, especially in current times with the mass media broadcasting the events around the world. He also believes because the current development of dangerous weapons can lead to the destruction of entire nations, world leaders will be less likely to start wars over smaller conflicts. (Sabloff, Chapter 4)
Insight into Current Issues
While the damage to the site in Northern Syria is a very current event, the damage from the war and the groups involved can be seen in other sites around Syria as well as Iraq. Terrorist groups that are active in the middle east have deliberately damaged over eight protected sites. The most recent was an attack on Nimrud, where two ancient Muslim shrines were destroyed.
Video by Channel 4 News: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqIadf9e848
Mark Altaweel(2015), a professor at the University of London, told CNN that Nimrud was a capital city full of rare artifacts cast from precious metals. The professor also stated that the majority of Nimrud had not been uncovered, and the archaeological potential was not fully reached.
2014 Ancient History, Modern Destruction: Assessing the Current Status of Syria’s World Heritage Sites Using High-Resolution Satellite Imagery; https://www.aaas.org/page/ancient-history-modern-destruction-assessing-current-status-syria-s-world-heritage-sites-using , Date accessed: 11/30/2016
Channel 4 News
2015 ISIS militants demolish ancient Iraqi city of Nimrud; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqIadf9e848 , Date Accessed: 12/4/2016
Cullinane, Susannah; Alkhshali, Hamdi; and Tawfeeq, Mohammed
2015 Tracking a trail of historical obliteration: ISIS trumpets destruction of Nimrud; http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/09/world/iraq-isis-heritage/ , Date Accessed: 11/30/16
Church in Baqirha; http://whc.unesco.org/en/documents/141278 , Date Accessed: 12/1/2016
2008 Archaeology Matters: [Chapter 4], New York
2008 List of Factors Affecting the Properties; http://whc.unesco.org/en/factors/ , Date Accessed: 11/30/2016
2014 UNESCO strengthens action to safeguard cultural heritage under attack; http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1176/ , Date Accessed: 11/30/2016
2016 Director-General of UNESCO deplores severe damage at Church of Saint Simeon, in northern Syria http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1499/ , Date Accessed: 11/30/2016
Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – 1970; http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/illicit-trafficking-of-cultural-property/1970-convention/ , Date Accessed: 12/2/2016
IRAQ, Properties Inscribed on the World Heritage List; http://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/iq , Date Accessed: 12/2/2016