I doubt if there are many “monuments men” in Syria just now. George Clooney is not filming on the streets of Damascus. When people are dying in their thousands, it is hard to look at the fate of monuments, but when the horrors of civil war pass, Syria’s heritage — the most glorious in the eastern Mediterranean — will have to be rebuilt. War’s survivors recover; their past may not. Syria will one day need the greatest campaign of historical rescue in modern times and we should be ready for that.
The indiscriminate bombing and shelling of Syrian cities — by whichever side — has devastated ancient Aleppo and the old city of Homs. Crac des Chevaliers, the grandest and best preserved of the crusader castles, has been pummeled by Syrian jets, as has Saladin’s fortress at Qal’at Salah el-Din. The 11th-century minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque is now a heap of rubble in the courtyard below, while the exquisite Souk al-Madina — the hub of the silk route trade since before Christ — is a gutted ruin and everywhere has been looted.
Syria joins Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya in the roll call of ancient cultures desecrated by modern war, much of it by Western bombers. The looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad; the damaging of Babylon; the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan; and the obliteration of Libya’s ancient Greek and Roman city of Cyrene recall the militarily senseless devastation of World War II. These acts disregard the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which Britain still refuses to ratify in deference to its Royal Air Force.
War’s destructiveness is a fact of life, but war’s aftermath is a matter of furious opinion. Should its ruins be left as gruesome memorials? Should they be restored in defiance of war’s obscenity? Or should such traces of the past be bulldozed to make way for a new age?
After World War II, the British cities of Bristol, Plymouth, Coventry and elsewhere swept away more of their old centers than the Blitz ever managed, leaving fragments of churches as witness to Britain’s obsession with war. In contrast, Russia’s Leningrad, the German city of Dresden, and France’s St Malo and Caen rebuilt their broken cathedrals, palaces and streets, refusing to let war’s madness obliterate memory and continuity. The people of Warsaw reconstructed their squares from old photographs — historicist feuds over authenticity against reproduction were of no concern to them. In 2005, Dresden’s baroque masterpiece, the Frauenkirche Lutheran church, was reopened, rebuilt as a tribute from the old Germany to the new. By contrast, Britain merely left the gutted shell of the old Coventry Cathedral.
These arguments refuse to vanish. The two giant Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up in 2001 by Taliban iconoclasts in the mountains north of Kabul and left gaping holes in the mountainside. The Afghan government and the local Hazara people wanted them rebuilt, to defy the Taliban and because the niches look absurd when empty.
For a decade, UNESCO fanatics — who seem to regard the site as theirs — played medieval schoolmen in arcane disputes on the ethics of Bamiyan. Afghan opinion was of no account. While UNESCO’s members spent billions of dollars bombing Afghanistan to bits, the ogranziation treated Bamiyan as a distant imperial ruler might. In 2012, it finally decided that the Buddhas should not be recarved, ludicrously declaring that the site would lose its world heritage status if that happened.