Learning from Aleppo

Volume 50, Issue 1 :: Text and Illustrations by Terry Welker, FAIA

Endangered, damaged, and destroyed World Heritage Sites

As an architect in the Midwest, I am easily horrified by the destruction of sacred sites far away from here in the Middle East. By now, the civil war in Syria and the City of Aleppo has crept into the American subconscious. But this war is not a simple two-sided skirmish. It’s complicated by the number international proxies and the unrecognized jihadist state of the Islamic State of Iraq and Lavent (ISIL). ISIL and related terrorist organizations have been deliberately destroying and stealing cultural heritage since 2014 in Iraq, Syria and Libya, particularly religious historical buildings, many of them World Heritage sites. I’m left asking myself, “what can I possibly do to make sense of this and seek to make a difference?”


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations that aims “to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue” through multiple activities. One of the significant ways it accomplishes this is through designating places of natural and manmade cultural significance as World Heritage Sites. Heritage sites are initially placed on a tentative list before a more exhaustive process of documentation required for inscription as a World Heritage Site.

Today, approximately 20 percent of the properties inscribed on the World Heritage List are considered religious or spiritual and constitute the largest thematic category. The idea of protecting heritage dates back to the Athens Charter of the First international Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments in 1931. The Venice Charter of 1964 strengthened this and established the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which advises UNESCO on World Heritage Sites. It wasn’t until the 1972 UNESCO Convention that two separate movements to preserve cultural and natural sites merged. Important writing contributes to the movement substantially in 2003 at the ICCROM Forum on Living Religious Heritage: Conserving the Sacred. Finally, in 2008 ICOMOS adopted the Quebec Declaration on the Preservation of the Spirit of Place.

Paraphrasing the Declaration, ICOMOS calls on the world to address the following principles:

First, rethink the spirit of place. Intangible cultural heritage elements (memories, narratives, rituals, festivals, documents etc.) must be considered in conjunction with tangible elements (sites, buildings, objects etc.) when considering all legislation, conservation, and restoration projects. Because spirit of place is complex, governments and stakeholders must call upon multidisciplinary research teams and traditional practitioners to better understand and preserve. Because spirit of place is continuously reconstructed, it can vary from culture to culture and a place can have several spirits and can be shared by different groups.

Second, we must identify the threats to spirit of place. Climatic change, mass tourism, armed conflict, and urban development are threats that need better understanding in order to establish preventative measures and sustainable solutions. Inhabitants and local authorities need awareness and preparation to deal with a changing world. Shared places are prone to conflict and need specific management plans and strategies for multicultural societies, especially for the protection of minorities.

Third, the spirt of place must be safeguarded. Training, forums, and consultations by experts of different backgrounds are needed for the development of programs and legal policies, especially for intangible components. Modern digital technologies should be used to their full advantage to create multimedia inventories that integrate tangible and intangible elements of heritage and facilitate the diversity and constant renewal of documentation.

Finally, there is a duty to transmit the spirit of place. It takes people, interactive communication, and participation by concerned communities to safeguard, use, and enhance the spirit of place. Local communities are in the best position to understand the spirit of place and should use formal and non-formal means of transmission to safeguard the spirit of place but more importantly the sustainable and social development of the community. Intergenerational involvement and different cultural groups associated with a site are all necessary in policy-making and management of the spirit of place.

The role of stakeholders cannot be overstated. In 2010 in Kiev the United Nations and UNESCO conducted and international seminar of the role of religious communities in the management of World Heritage properties. Living religious and sacred sites especially require specific policies because of their spiritual nature. Stakeholders in need of sustainable cooperation include religious communities, traditional believers, indigenous peoples, governments, professionals, relevant experts, funding bodies, and others. The result was the Statement on the Protection of Religious Properties within the Framework of the World Heritage Convention.

The World Heritage Committee and the Initiative on Heritage of Religious Interest continues its work through the World Heritage Centre headquartered in Paris. The most recent efforts are now aimed at integrating a number of guiding principles for PRI-SM (Properties of Religious Interest – Sustainable Management) into cultural policies at local national, regional, and international levels. The first regional conference, held in early 2016 for parts of Europe, has begun to map out these guidelines to enhance the rapprochement of cultures to enable harmonious relations among peoples.

Terror and Destruction in Syria and Iraq

The Temple of Bel

The Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria, before destruction.

The threat of destruction to monuments during armed conflict is not new. For thousands of years “holy wars” included the eradication of religious sites as a way to “cleanse” the occupied territory and to terrorize and debase the occupied inhabitants through the destruction of their spiritual culture. More recently, Nazi plunder and destruction during World War II is well documented. At the end of the war the Third Reich had accumulated hundreds of thousands of cultural objects through the systematic looting of occupied territories. Hitler and Goering, dissatisfied with the current state of German art, attempted to sell nearly 16,000 paintings and sculptures, condemning modern art as an act of cultural purification. This became part of the propaganda machine and infamously burned almost a third of the collection. Poland in particular suffered from the policies of cultural genocide. Thousands of scholars and artists were killed. An estimated 43 percent of Polish cultural heritage was stolen or destroyed, including 25 museums.

Thankfully, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program (MMFA), also known as the “Monuments Men,” was created to locate, protect, restore, and provide restitution and repatriation of countless cultural objects on behalf of the Allied Forces as the war was coming to a close. This led to the 1956 international treaty we know today as Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

Destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin

Destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, Syria.

World War II was a “conventional war” with known countries, governments, borders, and allied forces. The situation in the Middle East today is far more complex. Three monotheist religions in a common land have an interwoven history fraught with centuries of war. Even though they are guided by religious texts that espouse peace and harmony, the Arab Spring of 2012 unleashed a torrent of persecution. Among the actors arose an occupying force known as ISIS or ISIL or DAIISH or DAASH. This is a terrorist organization known for its destruction of cultural heritage sites, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes. Its origin goes back to 1999 with al-Queda and the Iraqi insurgency in 2003 and the invasion of Iraq by Western forces. They gained prominence in 2014 as an unrecognized state, a militant group claiming to lead a worldwide caliphate in the form of extreme fundamentalist Salifi Jihadism.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo, Syria

The Great Mosque (Umayyad Mosque) of Aleppo, Syria, before destruction.

Destruction of Aleppo’s Great Mosque

Destruction of Aleppo’s Great Mosque, sans minaret.

Casual observance might lead one to believe that the destruction of heritage sites and objects would be just mindless vandalism. However, there are ideological justifications ISIL makes because of its extreme adherence to Salifism, which places great importance on creating a monotheistic society and abolishing all idolatry and polytheism. The group’s actions become easy to follow when they are understood as a command from Allah. The ancient Assyrian capitol of Nimrud was razed by bulldozers in early 2015 and later the Syrian city of Palmyra severely damaged as a direct result of this extremist initiative. The targets throughout the region are primarily religious and sacred.

Besides the ideological justification there are also some practical reasons for the terrorism. ISIL shocks the world with these destructions with extensive media coverage and effective use of social media. This creates a cultural genocide, wiping away all traces of previous cultures and civilization. A related strategy allows the looting and selling of antiquities on the black market to help finance the caliphate, despite a United Nations ban in the trade of artifacts.

Damage Report: What Cultural Genocide Looks Like Today

UNESCO began to sound the alarms of cultural destruction and eradication in 2012 when World Heritage Sites such as the Ancient City of Aleppo, Great Mosque of Aleppo, and Citadel of Aleppo suffered heavy shelling in 2012 with the civil war. It only got worse until rebel forces were finally extricated in 2016. In June of 2013 UNESCO placed all six of Syria’s World Heritage Sites on the list of endangered sites.

In 2014 as ISIL came into prominent power, reports and photographs documented the regular destruction of multiple Shiite mosques and shrines throughout Iraq. To name a few, in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq, ISIL targeted religious sites sacred to both Islam and Christianity. By February 2015 they had destroyed the 12th-century Khudr Mosque in central Mosul. In May 2015, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution stating ISIL’s destruction of cultural heritage may amount to a war crime and urging international measures to halt such acts to no avail. In July 2015 they used explosives to bring down the mosque and the tomb of the prophet Jonah. Churches were not spared, either. The 7th-century Green Church and the 4th-century Mar Behman Monastery were both destroyed.

ISIL had captured the city of Palmyra, Syria, a World Heritage Site, by May of 2015 and released a video of undamaged Roman colonnades, the Roman Theatre, and the Temple of Bel. By the end of August, it was all gone, including the 1st-century Temple of Baalshamin. This was confirmed by the UN by reviewing satellite imagery. By October seven ancient tower tombs and the Monumental Arch had been blown up. As ISIL was retreating, they caused extensive damage by blowing up parts of the 13th-century Palmyra Castle.

According to the Syrian director of antiquities, restoration of sites such as the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin, and the Monumental Arch will be attempted using the surviving remains and anastylosis, a reconstruction technique whereby a building or monument is restored using the original architectural elements to the greatest degree possible. The Venice Charter of 1964 details the rigorous scientific process for such projects.

Thankfully, there are some valuable resources to help out. After the Palmyra incidents in August 2015, the Institute for Digital Archaeology, a joint effort between Harvard University and Oxford University, announced plans to work with UNESCO to send 5,000 3-D cameras to partners in the Middle East. The goal was to get these tools into the hands of these partners in advance of ISIL’s militant advances in Iraq and Syria. Dubbed the “New Monuments Men” by Newsweek, volunteers were able to digitally record the ancient ruins. Months later all that remained were these 3-D digital records.
Bringing Lessons Home

Archeological record of the Great Serpent Mound

Squire and Davis archeological record of the Great Serpent Mound.

Back home in the Midwest, the subject of World Heritage Sites is ever present. We have only 21 World Heritage Sites in the US with very few of them cultural, and none in Ohio. In 2008 the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks was one of 11 sites in the country to be added to the World Heritage Tentative List by the Department of the Interior. It includes the Newark Earthworks, just east of Columbus, the Fort Ancient Earthworks in southeast Ohio, and five geometric complexes within the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park near Chillicothe. Another sacred ancient site on the list is the Serpent Mound in Adams County, also in southern Ohio. The Serpent Mound is estimated to have been created around 1066 while the Hopewell mounds predated it by nearly a thousand years.

When discussing ancient sites it is worth asking “what makes it sacred?” There are a number of factors. First, many earthworks, such as Mound City, served as a necropolis for cremations and burials. Second, they often were aligned with solar or lunar astronomical events that tie the order of the cosmos to important beliefs, activities, and rituals of ancient life. It’s important to realize that ancient cultures did not segregate their lives into neat parcels the way we are accustomed to in contemporary Western culture. Their lives were a “compact mythical experience” that integrated religion, art, planting, harvesting, hunting, eating, family, community, life, and death. Much of life was sacred.

The Great Serpent Mount undulation

The Great Serpent Mount undulation seen during the annual winter solstice luminaire.

Archeological studies of Ohio’s hilltop and geometric earthworks have been going on since the mid 1800s. Excavations of these Hopewell-era sites have revealed a lot about the cultures that built them, yet the Great Serpent Mound has remained more mysterious. We know that there are astronomical alignments within the serpent’s coils that coincide with the equinoxes and the solstices. Current visitors to the Serpent bring a wealth of interpretations to the site, especially at the summer solstice. Annually, the poetic experience is the winter equinox luminaire festival. Volunteers line the quarter-mile-long mound with candles, which are lit beginning with a single flame that gets passed from person to person after a ceremonial prayer.

The Hopewell Earthworks are poised to become the US’s next UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the biggest concern at this nexus in time with UNESCO is whether the current political climate of the US will threaten their inscription. In 2012 UNESCO recognized Palestine as a member. This triggered a 20-year-old law passed by Congress that cut off dues and put us into the status of an “observer state.” We are potentially on the cusp of this again because of international politics. Volunteers, local and state government agencies, and a host of academics and professionals have been working for years to bring these sacred places to the world stage and a much-needed protective status. There are a couple more final steps in the process but we need Congress and the new leadership of the Department of the Interior to stay the course and not dismiss the UN and UNESCO out of hand. Louisiana and Texas have already seen the benefits of successful UNESCO inscriptions in their states (Poverty Point and San Antonio’s Missions). Many other states with nominated sites on the new, just-released Tentative List stand to suffer the consequences if their World Heritage nominations are not advanced. Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, is perhaps the best-known sacred religious place as part of a collection of 11 Frank Lloyd Wright buildings spread across the country.

I think I’ll write to my congressional leaders today.

The author is an architect/sculptor from Kettering, Ohio. He serves as the city’s Chief Building Official and runs the Welker Studio, creating large-scale mobiles and suspended public art. He’s also a frequent Pecha-Kucha presenter on topics of art and architecture.