6 out of 6: ALL of Syria's UNESCO Heritage Sites damaged or destroyed during civil war

A general view shows the damage at the ancient al-Atroush mosque in the old city of Aleppo, Syria January 28, 2016. © Abdalrhman Ismail
The destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra has made a real impact, but in fact each and every ancient site in Syria inscribed on the World Heritage List has suffered during the five years of conflict. RT looks back at unique landmarks shattered by military action.


Before Islamic State's (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) arrival, Palmyra, which means "City of Palms", was a revered open-air museum just 210 km from the Syrian capital Damascus. The unique landmark, described by UNESCO as an "oasis in the Syrian desert" was captured by Islamic State in May of 2015. Before the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, over 150,000 tourists visited the city every year.The jewel of the ancient ruins at the UNESCO heritage site in Palmyra – the iconic Arch of Triumph – was blown up by IS extremists engaged in what has been dubbed as "cultural cleansing" of the Middle East.


"This new destruction of culture in Palmyra reflects the brutality and ignorance of extremist groups and their disregard for local communities and the Syrian people," Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, said.

READ MORE: ISIS terrorists blow up iconic 2,000yo Arch of Triumph in Palmyra

A general view shows the ancient Temple of Bel in the historical city of Palmyra © Gustau Nacarino

The destruction of Baal Shamin, a temple dedicated to worshiping the Phoenician god of storms and rainfall, was another grievous loss.

Baal Shamin, some 210km to the northeast of Damascus, was known as the ‘Pearl of the Desert'. The 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, northeast of Damascus, was constructed to praise the Semitic god Bel. It had been considered one of the world’s greatest ancient relics. The militants demolished the monument with explosives and also desecrated some unique tombs.

An RT crew was the first among international TV journalists to report from the stricken area. IS fighters were still visible on a nearby hill.

Old city of Aleppo

As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Aleppo, with its medieval gates, 6th century Christian structures, Roman period street plans and many Ottoman period homes and palaces, has long been the urban, commercial, and cultural center of northwestern Syria

Ancient City of Aleppo (Syrian Arab Republic) © Silvan Rehfeld / UNESCO

One of the most well-known cultural sites in Aleppo is the Great Mosque, which was founded in the Umayyad period and rebuilt in the 12th century. Aleppo has been at the frontline in the present conflict. Government and opposition forces have continued to clash in and around the city. Accounts of the conflict in Aleppo outline a conflict characterized by heavy fighting and widespread shelling by tanks and artillery.

The city of Aleppo has experienced some of the heaviest fighting of the Syrian civil war. Considerable damage was seen within the old city, including damage to the Great Mosque of Aleppo and the ancient Suq al-Madina covered market. In spring 2013, it was reported that the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo had been destroyed during the fighting.

A view shows a destroyed section of the wall of Aleppo's ancient citadel as seen from a rebel-held area in Aleppo, Syria July 12, 2015. © Abdalrhman Ismail

Bokova strongly condemned the destruction in the City of Aleppo, saying that "heritage should not be taken hostage in the conflict."

Ancient city of Damascus

Before Palmyra was captured by IS, officials managed to remove some precious artifacts from the site and take them to Damascus. Yet, the Syrian capital - with the Ancient City of Damascus inscribed on the UNESCO list in 1979, itself suffered from the ongoing conflict.

One of the oldest cities in the world has been blighted by the same civil war that has riven the whole country. Residents say they don’t remember what peace is like.

Great Mosque of the Umayyads © Sacred Sites / UNESCO

READ MORE: ‘We forgot what peace is’: Everyday life in war-torn Damascus revealed in touching photo report 

During the conflict, the Syrian Ministry of Culture's Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums has reported mortar damage in the vicinity of the Old City.

A damaged synagogue is seen in the Damascus suburb of Jobar December 14, 2014. © Mohammed Badra

Damascus Antiquities conducted inventories of the properties and areas in the old city - including the archaeological buffer zone and the historical districts outside the walled city, officials said, adding that relics were hit by mortars.

In 2013, the holiest Jewish site in Syria – the 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue in Damascus – was looted and burned, and its roof blown off. The Syrian Army and rebel forces have both blamed each other for the demolition of the historic landmark, which is regarded as Syria’s holiest pilgrimage site for Jews.


Located in the southern Syrian Daara governorate, the ancient city of Bosra is best known as a major archaeological site, which boasts remains from the Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods.

A 2nd-century Roman theater is one of the best preserved examples from this period, and there are extensive Roman archaeological remains nearby. In the city there were once early Christian ruins and several mosques.

Ancient City of Bosra (Syrian Arab Republic) © Yvon Fruneau / UNESCO

Islamic period architectural remains in Bosra include the Al-Omari Mosque (AD 720), one of the oldest mosques in the world.

Since the escalation of the Syrian crisis, the city has suffered never-ending shelling and fighting. Reports say the city has been partially destroyed.

A damaged mosque is pictured in the historic Syrian southern town of Bosra al-Sham, after rebel fighters took control of the area, March 25, 2015.  © Wsam Almokdad

Crac des Chevaliers fortress

Located on high ridges in key defensive positions, the two castles represent the best-preserved examples of Crusader fortification architecture. Extant architectural elements date from the Byzantine and Islamic periods.

Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din (Syrian Arab Republic) © Silvan Rehfeld / UNESCO

Crac des Chevaliers is also known as Qal'at al-Hosn, and originally dates back to the 11th century. It was first called the Castle of the Kurds. Reports of damage to Crac des Chevaliers and violence in the surrounding region have been plentiful. As early as May 2012, there were reports of gunmen at the castle.

By July 2012, Free Syrian Army fighters were reported to be using the site, and the Syrian military responded by shelling the castle.

The Syrian Army secured Crac des Chevaliers – one of greatest medieval castles in the world – on Friday after Assad's forces had reclaimed the UNESCO World Heritage site from rebel fighters a day earlier. Crac des Chevaliers is a Crusader castle built in the 12th century.

A view shows the damage inside the Crac des Chevaliers fortress in the Homs countryside, after soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad  took control of it from rebel fighters, March 21, 2014. © Khaled Al Hariri

It was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006, five years before it was captured by anti-Assad forces in 2011. Damage to Crac des Chevaliers and other cultural treasures in Syria have repeatedly drawn condemnation from the United Nations, which has called for a halt to the destruction of the country’s cultural heritage.

Ancient villages of Northern Syria

The Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, also known as the "Dead Cities," are archaeological parks in northwestern Syria. This cultural landscape is marked by an abundance of archaeological ruins that date primarily to the late Antique and Byzantine periods (approximately the 1st-7th centuries).

 The octagon of Saint-Siméon martyrion © François Cristofoli / UNESCO

Added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2011, this cultural heritage site comprises eight parks (Jebel al A’la, Jebel Barisha, Jebel Seman 1, Jebel Seman 2, Jebel Seman 3, Jebel Wastani, Jebel Zawiye 1, and Jebel Zawiye 2), and these include forty individual village sites. A significant risk for the Dead Cities is their proximity to contested areas. Bab al-Hawa is a major border crossing between Syria and Turkey, and the entry point for supplies to armed combatants throughout Syria.

In northwestern Syria, there is particular concern over the status and condition of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Established Syrian IDP camps have been pitched inside ancient tombs and among the ruins of the Dead Cities.

Looted museums

Reports have emerged from Syria of looted museums, damaged heritage sites and the trade of antiquities for arms.The Independent reported that government museums at Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Maarat al-Numan and Qalaat Jaabar had been ransacked.

The newspaper also quoted Syrian Director of Museums Hiba Sakhel, who said items from the National Museum of Aleppo had been moved to the vaults of the central bank in Damascus for safekeeping. Sources in Syria are also reporting looting at museums in Homs and Hama.

READ MORE: Funding ISIS without knowing it: Looted relics from Syria make their way to Western markets

A man walks past Raqqa Museum, Syria © Nour Fourat

Ancient sites in Syria occupied by IS extremists are being looted on an industrial scale, with cultural artifacts being smuggled into Western countries to fund the terrorist group.

Islamic State is not only destroying items of cultural value, but also making a serious profit from them. The group currently occupies territories rich in archaeological treasures – including coins, ancient manuscripts, and jewelry – and is illegally exporting them to raise money for its extremist activities.

"Satellite imagery shows that archaeological sites in Syria are dotted by thousands of illegal excavations... that show there is looting on an industrial scale," the head of UNESCO said on Wednesday.

Not only is Syria’s future at stake as the civil war rages on, but now also its past. The black market flourishing in the conflict now sees relics - some as old as 1,200 years - traded by rebels for guns.

In a bid to preserve the image of the ancient relics, scientists will now use thousands of specially-modified 3D cameras to capture the Middle Eastern sites before they are relegated to historic memory. The Million Image Database Project, aimed at creating a full digital record of every artifact under threat, was announced earlier this summer by the Institute for Digital Archaeology.