Syria's lost treasure: How the civil war is ruining the country's ancient architecture

The great cultural monuments of Syria, including Damascus, are at risk of damage or destruction

The site where Cain is held to have murdered Abel is in a cave below a white dome on the slopes of Mount Qassioun, overlooking Damascus. It seems strikingly appropriate that the most notorious Biblical example of fratricide should be on the outskirts of a city now being torn apart by fratricidal strife.

The place where the killing took place is called “the Cave of Blood”. Tour guides once claimed that the whole mountain quivered at the enormity of the deed. But if Qassioun shakes today it is the result of government artillery firing at rebel-held enclaves and of rebel mortars firing back at the centre of the city.

Unesco warned this week that the great cultural monuments of Syria, including Damascus, are at risk of damage or destruction. The soukh in Aleppo has already been burned out. Heavy fighting has ruined Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque, built between the 8th and 13th centuries and reputedly home to the remains of John the Baptist’s father.

In Damascus the great Umayyad Mosque, with its glorious Byzantine style mosaics, stands undamaged in the Old City, although the volleys of ill-directed mortar bombs could easily hit it. More vulnerable are Christian and Shia churches and shrines.

Just behind Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque is the Sayida Ruqqaya Mosque, a Shia shrine once visited by thousands of pilgrims. Its mosaics and inlaid glass still shimmer, but elsewhere in Syria Shia mosques and Christian churches are being burned and desecrated. There is fighting around another Shia shrine, Sayyida Zeinab Mosque, in the south of the city. The fate of the great monuments of Syria, as well as its people, is in the balance.

Looking down on Damascus it is easy to underestimate the destruction because so many damaged buildings are still standing. People are not starving but bread queues are long and jobs are few. The city, until two years ago one of the most attractive in the world, has turned into a patchwork of hostile districts like Belfast, Baghdad or Beirut. Their inhabitants regard each other at best with suspicion and more usually with hatred and fear. This week, two mortar bombs killed a Christian standing guard at the Bab Touma gate into the Old City. A local man said: “The bombs came from the valley over there which leads to the Eastern Goutah where the rebels are strong.” He gestured towards the east as if it were a foreign country. Another Christian said: “I haven’t been out of this area for four months because I don’t feel safe anywhere else in Damascus.”

There are checkpoints everywhere, sometimes manned by uniformed soldiers, but often by men with guns wearing a mixture of military and civilian clothes, such as dirty white  T-shirts and camouflage trousers. They may be members of the 60,000-strong Local Defence Forces who often replace the army. but I never ask because I am only too glad to have passed through without trouble.

Media reports over the past year, from the time when the rebels made their first big attack on Syria’s capital in July 2012, refer to districts being won or lost by the government and the insurgents. But the struggle is more complicated than this, as the government may appear to gain control but the rebels still have a presence. Many rebel districts, like Jobar or Douma, are largely empty of civilians.

Government tactics are to surround and isolate rebel strongholds, but not necessarily to try to fight their way in. Even where the government is in overall control it is not possible to stop rebels moving mortars in the boots of their cars, setting them up in a matter of minutes to fire on government positions before disappearing.

Isolating districts does not always work in the government’s favour. The men who stay have little choice but to join the rebel militias since there is no other work available. The media often over-emphasises the supply of weapons as determining the rise and fall of rebel units, but it may be more important to know if their men are being paid and, if so, how much..

Fundamentalist groups linked to al-Qa’ida, such as the al-Nusra Front, can afford to pay better and can therefore attract more recruits and defectors from other insurgent movements. “Money counts for more than ideology,” one diplomat said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men