The world has been watching the struggle of the Syrian refugees to gain acceptance in Europe this week, and while the human cost of the war has been devastating, so has been the toll on Syrian architecture and culture. The recent news has turned the world spotlight back on the Syrian people, but for them, war has been their reality for more than four years. Almost 4 million people have fled the country and more than 7 million people inside Syria have been displaced. Bombings and horrific human rights violations are widespread, and not only are many Syrians losing the place that they call home, but they are losing their cultural heritage as well, including many of the most prominent and ancient architectural monuments.
The recent focus in the news has brought memories flooding back of the warm welcome I received when traveling in Syria in 2006. Today, the country has become an entirely different place, as human lives are being devastated, but also, the fabric of Syrian society has been ripped apart and their culture is being destroyed. Shells and bombs have torn apart ancient monuments, entire cities and some of the Muslim world’s greatest mosques.
The ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was a booming metropolis in the third century AD and an important stop along the Silk Road. In 2006, it was one of the country’s most spectacular tourist attractions.
Now IS militants are in control of the monument and have blown up several of the most important temples on the site. The awe-inspiring Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which houses a shrine that is said to contain the head of St. John the Baptist, has sustained only minor damage so far.
But the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, an architectural masterpiece built in the 11th century, isn’t so lucky. The entire structure is now in ruins. The minaret has been destroyed and the once immaculate polished stone courtyard is now just rubble. Here’s how it looked in 2006.
Many parts of the Ancient City of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, including the remarkable souk which was the largest historic covered market in the world, have been bombed beyond recognition. Wandering through the souk in 2006, I was welcomed by the merchants who were more interested in cracking jokes with me than selling me their wares.
Near Aleppo, villages of beehive homes still stand. The homes, created from mud, straw and stones, are based on a building technique that has been in use for thousands of years. The shape keeps inhabitants cool in the blazing heat of the desert and stays structurally sound in the fierce windstorms of the region. Many of the villagers who inhabited these homes are now refugees, having been displaced by the war.
The devastating toll that this prolonged war has taken is hard to fully comprehend. You can read more about the people and architecture I encountered on my 2006 travels in Syria at My Five Acres.
Images via Jane Mountain