Preservationists and archaeologists are warning that fighting in Syria’s commercial capital, Aleppo — considered the world’s oldest continuously inhabited human settlement — threatens to damage irreparably the stunning architectural and cultural legacy left by 5,000 years of civilizations.
Already the massive iron doors to the city’s immense medieval Citadel have been blown up in a missile attack, said Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund, an organization that works to preserve cultural heritage sites.
The fund has collaborated for more than a decade with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the Syrian government’s Cultural Ministry and German archaeologists in excavating and restoring the site.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been shelling the city, and in recent days his army has taken up positions inside the Citadel, trading fire with insurgents through the castle’s arrow loops, according to news reports. Built on a massive outcropping of rock, the easily defended Citadel has been an important strategic military point for millenniums and is once again serving that function.
Among the significant archaeological sites endangered is the Temple of the Storm God, which dates from the third to the second millennium B.C. and which Ms. Burnham identified as one of the oldest structures in the world. Never opened to the public, the recently discovered temple and its huge carved reliefs are protected only by sandbags and a flimsy corrugated tin roof, she said.
Aleppo’s labyrinthine streets reveal a microcosm of human history. Beneath the Citadel are remains of Bronze Age friezes and Roman fortresses. The entire walled Old City, with its 12th-century Great Mosque, thousands of pastel-colored medieval courtyard houses, Arab souks and 17th-century stone madrasas, an Ottoman palace and hammams, is recognized as a World Heritage Site by Unesco, the United Nations cultural arm.
Images of the Citadel show rubble in some locations, but it is difficult to verify the extent to which either side is responsible for any damage.
The Syrian National Council, a coalition of antigovernment forces, issued a communiqué saying that the Citadel was damaged on Friday by an army rocket. Al Jazeera filmed rebels last week talking about the need to capture the Citadel.
Ms. Burnham warned that looting could inflict further damage on the city. She said she was informed about the destruction from archaeologists in the United States, Europe and the Middle East who have been in contact by telephone and through the Internet with eyewitnesses in Aleppo.
“People initially thought Damascus and Aleppo would be spared,” she said. “This is the richest cultural area of the Middle East, so there is really a lot to lose here.”
Located at the intersection of ancient trade routes, Aleppo has seen empires rise and fall. The armies of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlaine and the Muslim general Saladin have at one time or another both attacked and defended the spot.
In 1996 a team of German and Syrian archaeologists began to peel back another layer of the region’s history, unearthing some of the 5,000-year-old Temple of the Storm God beneath the Citadel. The temple contains a monumental frieze of basalt relief sculptures created by the ancient Hittites, whose empire once stretched from Anatolia to northern Syria. It marks “one of the great religious centers” of the ancient world,” the magazine Archaeology reported in 2009, as the excavations were being finished, and offers “a unique glimpse into the religious architecture, beliefs and practices of the ancient Near East over a vast span of time.”
The team found other treasures beneath the dirt and rubble, including a relief of the storm god — perhaps a counterpart to the Greeks’ thunderbolt-wielding Zeus — that dates back to the 14th century B.C., and seven-foot-tall sculptures of a lion and a sphinx.
The Citadel itself was the centerpiece of what Nicolai Ouroussoff, the former architecture critic of The New York Times, called “one of the most far-thinking preservation projects in the Middle East.” The World Monuments Fund and the Aga Khan Trust restored this medieval landmark, as well as hundreds of old houses; rebuilt streets; and planned a 42-acre park to upgrade and integrate the surrounding community. A museum on the site was also planned.
The fund was compelled to withdraw from the project about 18 months ago, Ms. Burnham said, because of the growing instability in Syria.
The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict, drawn up in 1954 in the wake of the devastating losses inflicted during World War II, requires countries to ensure the safety of significant cultural sites, monuments, museums and libraries. More than 120 countries, including the United States and Syria, have signed the agreement. But preservationists complain that little has been done in advance to protect treasured sites. They point out that in Aleppo, both the government and the rebels have a responsibility to protect their cultural legacy.
Jörg Esefeld, an urban planner who served as an adviser to the Aga Khan Trust in Aleppo, said that what needed to be done now was to highlight the danger both within and outside of Syria. “I think the world should know — day by day, and again and again — that there is a unique cultural heritage exposed to be demolished,” he wrote in an e-mail from Stuttgart, Germany. “This is not only a question for Syria; it will be a question for all of us, for the whole world.”
Experts on the region, however, doubt that such appeals will take precedence over military strategy.
“The Assad government’s primary concern is to destroy the rebels, and the opposition’s fighters want to remove Assad from power,” said Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. During the massacre that occurred in Hama in 1982, he added, “Assad’s father bombed mosques. A government that readily kills its own people cannot be expected to respect and preserve historical monuments, bricks and mortar. All is expendable for control of the country. The damage done to the Citadel is one such example.”