In a grim footnote to the ongoing human tragedy in Syria, the country's cultural heritage as well as its civilian population is now in peril. Syria, a center of civilization in the ancient and medieval eras, boasts some of the finest archaeological sites in the near east, notably the old cities of Damascus and Aleppo as well as the ancient synagogue at Dura Europos. Bashar al-Assad's regime, which should have the knowledge and ability to protect sensitive sites, has done nothing to spare them. There have been reliable reports of violence at a number of sites, including the so-called "Bride of the Desert," the Roman city of Palmyra, the Omari mosque in Deraa, the early Christian church of St. Julian in Homs, and the medieval castle known as the "Krak des Chevaliers" outside that city.
Palmyra contains Babylonian, Hellenistic, Roman and Islamic treasures, and was home to the legendary Queen Zenobia who rebelled against the Romans in the third century AD. Abandoned for centuries and in an isolated location, the ruins are—or were—particularly well preserved. Given the popularity of Palmyra as a tourist destination, Assad had in the past been content to leave well enough alone. But in February the troops rolled in and took up positions in the 17th-century Citadel of Ibn Maan overlooking the modern town and adjacent to the Roman ruins. Civilians report heavy gun and tank fire targeting any activity in the site, and the extent of the damage can only be imagined.
Religious sanctuaries have not been immune. The historic Omari mosque in Deraa was at the center of the early protests and clashes, when it served as a makeshift hospital for wounded civilians. It was savagely attacked by forces under control of Bashar's brother Maher al-Assad, and has seen heavy fighting a number of times over the past year. This venerable structure is an important thirteenth century example of Ayyubid architecture and, with its distinctive square minaret, is a centerpiece of the urban fabric of Deraa. Much of the mosque's stonework was actually ancient Roman, appropriated from a nearby theater that was being excavated when the uprising started. Its fate is unknown.
The beleaguered city of Homs has seen a lion's share of the fighting over the past year, and so sustained the most damage. The appalling human carnage there, including the western journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlick killed in February, has rightly sparked international outrage, but the Syrian opposition recently drew attention to another victim. Ancient Homs was home to a community of early Christians including the converted physician Julian (also known as Ilian or Elian). Julian tended to the Christians tortured by the Roman authorities, and was eventually put to death on the orders of his own father. A church was consecrated at his burial site in 432 and is still active today. Excavations in the 1970s uncovered the Saint's sarcophagus as well as medieval—and possibly earlier—frescoes in the apse. But in the chaos consuming Homs this precious sanctuary is imperiled as the Christian community has largely fled the city, and there are reports it has been attacked or looted.
The "Krak des Chevaliers," a beautifully preserved citadel from the crusader era, is not far from Homs. In his 1910 volume on medieval architecture, T.E. Lawrence called this structure the "most wholly admirable castle in the world," and made it his prime example of crusader buildings in Syria. It has survived largely as Lawrence of Arabia saw it a century ago, and as at Palmyra, a range of artifacts from the early Kurdish settlers, crusaders, and later Islamic civilization are preserved there. It offers now no protection, however, for refugees fleeing from Homs, and, apparently occupied by troops, is also the scene of gunfire and carnage.
Palmyra and the Krak de Chevaliers are two of six UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria, and in recent weeks an opposition group has pleaded with the U.N. organization for help preserving them along with other locations damaged or endangered by the fighting. Ironically, Syria remains a member of UNESCO (membership is automatic when a nation joins the U.N.) with Assad's ambassador to Paris serving as a permanent delegate to the organization while the regime is deliberately targeting its own cultural heritage. The situation threatens to disintegrate further in coming days, as Assad ratchets up attacks on the rebels, and sadly the United Nations has proven powerless to protect civilians or cultural treasures.
The loss of Syria's patrimony would be a great loss to the civilized world, but over the course of the last year Bashar al-Assad has made it painfully clear that his trappings of civilization and polish are just that. His sole motivation is—as it was for his father before him—survival. The people of Syria and the nation's treasures are clearly expendable if their extermination preserves the Assad regime. His callous indifference to the destruction of Syria's cultural sites is yet another crime to lay at the feet of the dictator—and a sad reminder that not all the casualties of war are human.
Victoria Coates is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a consulting curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art.