By Kylie Ching
Among city dwellers, electrical wires, and street peddlers stands a monumental Greco-Roman Corinthian column. Stark contrasts like this can be found together in the Ancient City of Damascus, Syria. Founded in the 3rd millennium B.C., Damascus is one of the oldest still inhabited cities in the Middle East. The city is not unfamiliar to turbulence and violence. Damascus has overcome numerous natural disasters and eager conquerors. Due to its desirable assets such as profitable trade routes and water oasis, Damascus has been subject to various rulers of different cultures, which created opportunities to blend peoples from Egypt, Greece, Rome, Assyria, Babylon, Turks, Mongols, French, and Persia. This myriad of cultures accumulated over time has resulted in a unique hybrid identity of the city’s landscape, which can be found in the city’s architecture and ornamentation.
The Great Mosque of Damascus is one of the most popular pilgrimage sites for the Islamic people and arguably one of the largest congregational mosques in the ancient world, which means it holds value to a myriad of people. Its construction began in 706 CE under the Umayyad rule of caliph al-Waldid I however, the Mosque’s existence stretches back to the Roman period, where it began as a first-century temple for Jupiter. The Mosque also was built on the sites of a fourth- century Byzantine basilica and the Church of St. John the Baptist (Walker, 28). The site has been continuously transformed across various religions and powers, which gives it value across multiple religions, races, and ethnicities. For instance, ancient streets such as in Souq al-Hamidiyya have been adapted into a covered market that has been in operation since for centuries since the late-19th-century Ottoman era. People have been able to buy goods and make a living in the same space for generations, which enables the location to collect local value across time. Another historical structure within the ancient city is the Damascus Citadel. The older tower dates back to the 1076 AD and was used as a royal residence and for military protection (Adorni and Venturelli, 339). Such monumental structures co-exist with modern urban inhabitants and became part of the historical landscape of Damascus.
Although these historical sites and structures have managed to exist within the modern world they have been under constant threat due to Syria’s civil war. Anti-government sentiments have lead to violent protests and conflicts, which reached the country’s capital of Damascus in 2012 (BBC). Another incident includes the firing of mortar shells in November of 2014, which resulted in a meter wide hole near the Citadel’s recently restored Throne Room. Some damage done to the ancient city was collateral damage such as the bombing near the Damascus Citadel in February 2015. The Great Mosque of Damascus is also not a stranger to war damages. The mosque has burned down twice during accidental fires and was set on fire during a sacking (the Guardian). Within the Great Mosque are its famous mosaics posited on 8th century facades. Similar to the Damascus Citadel, the mosaics depicting images of Paradise experienced damage from mortar shell firings (BBC).
The Ancient City of Damascus is still in its current state of civil war. These historical sites and structures are exposed to these dangers constantly whether it be potential cross-fire or looting. According to Mark Ataweel, a number of antiquities have been found in London markets, which is one of the largest antiquities markets in the world. Many of the artifacts are likely to be from “conflict regions,” meaning Iraq and Syria due to their distinctive stylistic characteristics . The emergence of Daesh has further encouraged illegal excavations and destruction of Damascus’ cultural heritage. The looting of these heritage sites has enabled the Daesh to gain control over the black market through dealers and middlemen. These profits are then invested into institutions to create more opportunities for revenue-raising enterprises. These high-value illegal business transactions only prolong the outlook of Syria’s civil war and therefore continue to pose a threat to the Ancient City of Damascus.
Currently, the Ancient City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2013 until present. In light of the current chaotic political and social conditions Damascus faces there has been much debate about how to protect the Ancient City. According to UNESCO, there are several institutions that have been established for the protection and management of the Ancient City such as the Commission for Safeguarding the Old Time and General Dictorate for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). According to Salam Al Quntar, DGAM is operated in Damascus but controlled by the government. DGAM employees’ have received online training, but Al Quntar questions the value of the training when many employees are not able to make it to work. Beyond the local institutions no international organizations have made an effort to contact areas that fall out of DGAM control. Furthermore, there are also several laws instituted towards the protection and management of Damascus such as the Legal Protection Antiquities Law 222, which designated the Ancient City as cultural and historical heritage of Syria or the Minsterial N37/A of 2010, which approved the integrated urban plan of the Old City. Despite these legal actions there is still the need for a solid plan and government structure. Since the civil war is still unresolved the Ancient City’s historical, cultural, urban, and spiritual fabric will continue to face physical destruction. It is uncertain as to what may exist even tomorrow in face of looting, direct demolition, and cross-fire.
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