Conservation Heritage News Syrian Arab Republic

Ancient Christian sites in Syria threatened

Government surveys damage in small town where Aramaic is still spoken after rebels retreat

Many of the rebels are unsympathetic towards the country’s Christian minority

The Syrian government claims that there has been extensive damage to ancient Christian sites in Maaloula, a small town where Aramaic (the language of Jesus’s time) is still spoken. It lies 35 miles north-east of Damascus, at the base of mountains rising up from the desert. There has been extensive fighting around Maaloula since last September and in April president Assad’s government forces regained control from the rebels.

Earlier this month, the Syrian directorate general of antiquities and museums published a report of a mission to Maaloula. It is difficult to verify their claims, and it is not clear who inflicted the damage, but the survey presents disturbing evidence of destruction. Many of the rebels are unsympathetic towards the country’s Christian minority. Although the government report accuses rebels of looting religious artifacts, it is possible that some may have been removed to safety.

The Greek Catholic monastery above the town, dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Mar Sarkis and Bakhos), dates back to the fourth century AD. It is one of the world’s oldest churches and was built on the foundations of an earlier pagan temple.

Part of the monastery’s walls have been damaged by shelling and the Syrian government report claims that the church’s main dome has been “destroyed”. Some of the roof timbers date back 2,000 years and these may have been damaged. The ancient marble altar, probably also pagan, is said to have been destroyed and “drilling operations were carried out under the altar in search of treasures”. The government report claims that “all of the movable antiquities and holy items inside the monastery have been stolen, including the most important Maaloula icons”. The oldest icon, depicting the two saints of the monastery, may date from the 14th century.

The monastery occupies a strategic position, on the cliff that dominates the town. Just beneath it, the hillside is riddled with caves, some of which were occupied by prehistoric humans over 50,000 years ago. Many of the caves and rock-cut tombs are said to have been “vandalised, sabotaged, drilled, door-smashed (in a bid to search for treasures) and turned into fortified barricades”.

Below lies the Greek Orthodox convent of St Techla (Mar Takla). Most of its buildings are relatively modern, although they lie on an ancient site. The Syrian government report says that the cave shrine with the tomb of the saint has been “completely burned”, and the fate of the most important icons is “yet to be known”. A fire was started in the church of St John the Baptist “after most of the items have been stolen and the rest broken and sabotaged, such as the altar, the crosses, icons and frescoes”. At least 12 of the nuns were kidnapped and taken hostage in December 2013, but released last March.

Emma Cunliffe, an archaeology graduate from Durham University and now a heritage consultant, is monitoring damage of Syrian sites. Although details of the situation at Maaloula remain unclear, she is certain there has been “shelling of many Christian sites and extensive iconoclasm”.

Update: During an international meeting of experts this week (26-28 May), Unesco announced that it will establish an observatory to assess the threat Syria’s cultural heritage at its office in Beirut, Lebanon. It will monitor the state of buildings and artefacts, and share information on damaged structures and looted artefacts online, with the aim of restoring the country's heritage once the fighting is over.

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