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Civil War Puts Syria's Cultural Heritage In Peril


Syria's cultural heritage is also in peril - one that includes rare and important ancient artifacts, Islamic landmarks, precious ancient villages and a castle, dating to the crusades. All have been damaged by bombs and looting. In Aleppo, one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, fire destroyed that city's famed old central souk, an elaborate, covered marketplace that's centuries old. And both sides blame each other for the toppling of a famous minaret. For more on these cultural losses, we turn to Francesco Bandarin. He's UNESCO's assistant director-general for culture.

FRANCESCO BANDARIN: There are in that region of the world a representation of practically all moments of human history, from the early cities down to modern times.

MONTAGNE: What are some of the worst reports you've heard out of Syria?

BANDARIN: Well, the situation in Syria is very bad. They say that every single site in Syria has been affected. But of course some of them were in the middle of the conflict, for instance, Aleppo. We had a major distraction of the famous Umayyad Mosque earlier in the last year. We had bombing of the Krak des Chevaliers, which is a very important crusader castle. And the conflict has really left a lot of ruins. And then we had the reports of illegal diggings, people digging objects. I mean, I would say that when a site has been visited by thousands of people like this, it's essentially destroyed from a scientific point of view. So, we have a very serious situation there. One of the worst I've seen.

MONTAGNE: Besides the destruction of archaeological sites and these ancient buildings and bazaars, all of which is terrible, there's also art and artifacts being spirited out of the country. How are you able to stop that?

BANDARIN: What we did there first, for instance in the case of Syria, we organized a meeting of all the neighboring countries, custom services and police to train them a little bit on the situation and showing the kind of artifact they should look for. So, this has helped a little bit because a number of things have been intercepted in fact. Now, of course, the amount of objects that you can recuperate is always small, 'cause that's an illicit activity and the channels are clandestine. But that's what we can do. And sometimes it is a factor.

MONTAGNE: Well, I wonder three years into this war, when you make the case for this effort to save cultural sites and treasures, how do you frame it in the context of so much human suffering?

BANDARIN: Well, you see, we think that heritage is part of human life. It's not a separate thing. Culture is part of human identity. Now if you take away heritage and identity to people, they're really deprived of a very fundamental part of their humanity. So, we see it like this; now it is part of the humanitarian process, humanitarian laws, and humanitarian interrelation(ph).

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

BANDARIN: Thank you very much. Thank you.


MONTAGNE: Francesco Bandarin is assistant director-general for culture for UNESCO. He joined us from New York.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.