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.

'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella


Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
The last great picture - Winner 'Black and White' and overall 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year'
Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward (right) with former 'Washington Post' executive editor Ben Bradlee

The Washington Post editor helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Nixon

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Computer Futures

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - SThree - £18k Starting Salary

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: SThree Group has been...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Recruitment Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London