When Asma al-Assad, the British-born wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, received an honorary Ph.D. in archeology in 2004 from the prestigious University of Rome “La Sapienza,” she stressed that such knowledge should be used “to foster mutual respect for what human societies have achieved over the millennia across the globe.”
Awarded for her role in the development of historical and archaeological studies and the preservation of the Syrian heritage, the degree was handed to al-Assad amid the ruins of the fabled ancient city of Ebla. The ceremony changed for the first time the University’s 700-year-old tradition which required the honorary degree to be given inside the city of Rome.
Ten years later, Asma is banned from traveling to all EU member states except the U.K, while bombing and looting have ravaged most of her country’s precious archaeological sites.
According to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural, education and science arm, illegal excavation in the past three years has spread everywhere, from Ebla, the site where Asma received her honorary Ph.D., to the ancient Sumerian city of Mari.
Apamea, a city founded in 300 B.C. by one of Alexander the Great”s generals, which boasted one of the longest and widest colonnades in the ancient world, “is completely destroyed by thousands and thousands of illegal diggings,” Francesco Bandarin, assistant director-general for culture at the agency, warned at a news conference last week.
“A site has a value not only for the monuments that are destroyed but also for the values of the objects in the ground,” Bandarin said. “When this is lost, the scientific value of the site is clearly, clearly compromised,” he added.
To curb the destruction, the European Union gave UNESCO 2.5 million euros ($3.4 million) last week for a program aimed at fighting looting as well as raising awareness on Syria’s endangered cultural heritage…
… Syria’s cultural heritage is unique. As Asma al-Assad remarked in her acceptance speech of the doctorate, it’s a land where “those essential human attributes — culture, society and civilization — first flourished.”
Along with Mesopotamia, the country echoes the main advances made by humankind such as the birth of the first villages and what is believed to be the world’s first alphabet. Ironically, it is also here that archaeologists found the first evidence for the use of chemical weapons.
Over four millennia, Syria’s valleys and deserts have witnessed everything from Biblical civilizations, Roman conquerors and Christian Crusaders. The result is an abundance of unique monuments which include Roman cities, castles and forts, medieval Islamic markets, palaces, mosques and cathedrals.
“The country has tens of thousands of archaeological sites, not all of which have been recorded or even discovered yet. Before the crisis, new sites were being discovered all the time,” Emma Cunliffe, Global Heritage Preservation Fellow Postgraduate Researcher at Durham University, and author of “Damage to the Soul: Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Conflict,” told Discovery News…