Aleppo from the Citadel before the recent destruction

New high-resolution satellite image analysis: 5 of 6 Syrian World Heritage sites ‘exhibit significant damage’

September 19th, 2014, Archaeology News

In war-torn Syria, five out of six World Heritage sites now “exhibit significant damage” and some structures have even been “reduced to rubble”, according to new high-resolution satellite image analysis conducted by the nonprofit, nonpartisan American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The AAAS analysis, offering the first comprehensive look at the extent of the damage to Syria’s precious cultural heritage sights, was completed in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s Penn Cultural Heritage Centre (PennCHC) and the Smithsonian Institution, and in cooperation with the Syrian heritage Task Force. The National Science Foundation funded the analysis, which provides authoritative confirmation of previous on-the-ground reports of damage to individual sites.

“Only one of Syria’s six World Heritage sites‒ the Ancient City of Damascus‒ appears to remain undamaged in satellite imagery since the onset of civil war in 2011,” said Susan Wolfinbarger, director of the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project at AAAS. Historic structures residing at the other five sites, including ancient mosques, schools, and civilian as well as government buildings, have all been damaged, and in some cases, destroyed, AAAS reported. Wolfinbarger added, however, that “the Damascus site also could have damage not visible in satellite images.”

AAAS released its analysis on the eve of a Smithsonian Institution meeting recognizing the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. That event, organized in collaboration with the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield and the Office of the Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture, will take place 13:00-17:30 September 19th in the Ring Auditorium of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington, D.C. (some public seating will be available, but on a limited basis.)

The AAAS analysis unveils extensive damage in Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating as far back as the 2nd millennium B.C.: “In satellite imagery, massive destruction is obvious throughout the city, and especially at the World Heritage site of the Ancient City,” Wolfinbarger said. Demolished structures include historic mosques and madrasas (Koranic schools), the Great Mosque of Aleppo, the Suq al-Madina, the Grand Serail of Aleppo, the Hammam Yalbougha an-Nasry, the Khusruwiye Mosque, the Carlton Citadel Hotel, and the Khan Qurt Bey caravanseraim as well as other historic buildings located both south and north of the citadel.

Images taken in 2011 and 2014 exposed particularly severe damage to the Great Mosque, the nearby Suq al-Madina, and the surrounding area. AAAS and its partners documented roof damage and a destroyed minaret as well as two craters on the eastern wall of the mosque. While the most severe damage was seen just south of the citadel, destruction was also seen to the north‒ an area comprising of buildings from the late Mamluk to Ottoman periods (13th-19th centuries).

Across Syria’s other World Heritage sites‒ the Ancient city of Bosra; the Ancient Site of Palmyra; the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria; and two castles, Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din‒ damage ranged from mortar impacts near an ancient roman theatre in Bosra, to military compounds in previously unspoiled archaeological sites, and new roads and earthen berms cut through the centre of the Northern Roman Necropolis in Palmyra. UNESCO has said that Palmyra, located in the desert northeast of Damascus, “contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world,” bringing together Graeco-Roman art with Persian influences.

At the Crac des Chevaliers castle, one of the most famous examples of Crusader fortification architecture, images captured in 2010 and 2014 showed “moderate structural damage” including a 6-meter gash to its southeast tower and cratering of the grounds, AAAS discovered. In the Jebel Barisha Ancient Village Park, one of Northern Syria’s ancient villages, images taken before and after the inception of war revealed three new military compounds, two of which were within park boundaries.

“From our contacts and sources in Syria, we knew that there was damage to World Heritage sites,” said Brian I. Daniels, Director of Research and Programs, Penn Cultural Heritage Centre, University of Pennsylvania Museum, “but this report surprised us by revealing just how extensive the destruction actually is.”

Corine Wegener, cultural heritage preservation officer for the Smithsonian Institution, said that organizing an international research community to study the primary cases of damage to cultural heritage in times of conflict will be crucial to intervention efforts in Syria‒ a goal to be discussed at the meeting taking place on September 19th. “There is hope, and it lies with our Syrian colleagues because they are the stewards and caretakers of these sites, and they see the value in preserving and protecting them for future generations,” Wegener said. “What they need from their international colleagues is some help to do that‒ training, materials, and other support in the international arena for the notion that it is possible to mitigate and prevent damage to cultural heritage, even in the midst of conflicts.”

Continued AAAS research will examine further the damage to Syria’s World Heritage sites, as well as many other sites of cultural significance, Wolfinbarger said. In 2013, all six of the sites were placed on the “List of World Heritage in Danger,” maintained by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre. The United Nations has made an estimate that the Syrian crisis has been responsible for 100,000 lives, as well as millions that have been displaced.

As well as Wolfinbarger, Daniels, and Wegener, the research team included Richard M. Leventhal of the University of Pennsylvania; and Johnathan Drake, Eric Ashcroft, and Katharyn Hanson of AAAS. Images from the Worldview-1 and Worldview-2 satellites were provided by DigitalGlobe.

The AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, part of the association’s Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, had previously released reports on the conflict in Aleppo, which included an analysis of damage to the world heritage area there.