Ancient Villages of Northern Syria
Some 40 villages grouped in eight parks situated in north-western Syria provide remarkable testimony to rural life in late Antiquity and during the Byzantine period. Abandoned in the 8th to 10th centuries, the villages, which date from the 1st to 7th centuries, feature a remarkably well preserved landscape and the architectural remains of dwellings, pagan temples, churches, cisterns, bathhouses etc. The relict cultural landscape of the villages also constitutes an important illustration of the transition from the ancient pagan world of the Roman Empire to Byzantine Christianity. Vestiges illustrating hydraulic techniques, protective walls and Roman agricultural plot plans furthermore offer testimony to the inhabitants' mastery of agricultural production.
In May 2016, the Director-General of UNESCO strongly condemned the severe damage caused by an air-strike to the Church of Saint Simeon, part of the UNESCO World Heritage property of the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria. The byzantine Church was built in the year 490 AD on Mount Simeon and used to be a popular destination for worshippers and tourists alike.
UNESCO has received information and photographic evidence revealing that the Church appears to have suffered extensive damage, including to the remains of the pillars on which Saint Simeon is said to have spent forty years as an hermit.
For images showing damages to the Church of Saint Simeon following the air-strike, check the report by The Day After “Heritage Protection Initiative”.
Conservation issues presented to the 40th session of the World Heritage Committee (Istanbul, 2016)
On 5 February 2016, the State Party submitted a state of conservation report for the six World Heritage properties in Syria, which is available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1348/documents.
The State Party reports that access to the serial property remains difficult and that it mostly relied on the cooperation with local communities for monitoring the property. The report details damage to the property in four of the eight archaeological parks arising from the armed conflict, (two out of three in the governorate of Aleppo; two out of five in the governorate of Idlib), highlighting that according to local communities all the components of the property in the governorate of Idlib suffered damages. The sites continue to be damaged by the use of stones for building material, illegal constructions and quarrying, illicit excavations and vandalism, as well as by the lack of conservation activities.
In addition to the damage previously reported since 2013, the report indicates that stones from the archaeological sites are being used as building material in Jabal Sem’an, at Saint Simeon (eastern church, buildings along the northern road), Rafade (western tower of the Castle and other buildings) and Sitt ar-Roum, as well as in Jebel Zawiye and at al-Bara by using explosives and heavy machinery. Illegal constructions are reported in the sites of Saint Simeon (inside the citadel, outside towards the south, main gate, near the south-western church, close to the Triumphal Arch), Rafade, Sitt ar-Roum and Qatura. Road construction is reported in Jebel Sem’an, notably at Rafade. Illegal quarries are reported at the sites of Saint Simeon (north east) and Rafade as well as in Jebel Wastani at the site of Kafr Aqareb, where unauthorized agriculture, digging for wells and displacement of stones from historic buildings are also taking place. Illicit excavations are reported at the sites of Qal’at Sem’an (south-west of the citadel, northern church and main gate), Rafade (southern area), Sitt ar-Roum and Sheikh Suleiman as well as in Jabal Wastani. Vandalism is reported at the sites of Sitt ar-Roum (mosaic of the church), Sheikh Suleiman and at al-Bara where sarcophagus of pyramid and ground tombs had been intentionally destroyed. Collapse of stones is reported at the sites of Saint Simeon and Rafade (southern façade of the castle) as well as structural risks to some building in Jabal Wastani, due to cracks. In May 2016, other sources reported the shelling of Saint Simeon, which hit the remains of the stylite tower and the collapse of other structures.
Relocation of displaced populations is reported at the site of Sitt ar-Roum, in Jebel Zawiye and at the sites of al-Bara, Serjila, and Shinshara, but no further information on the impact of the displacement is available.
The State Party indicates that the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums continue to co-operate with local communities, including displaced populations, to protect the archaeological sites from destruction and illicit excavations, which has reduced the extent of damage.
Other sources indicates bombardments of historial structures in Jabal Zawiye at Shinshara and in Jabal Sam’an at Saint Simeon.
Analysis and Conclusions by the World Heritage Centre, ICOMOS and ICCROM (Istanbul, 2016)
The recent escalation of the conflict in and around the serial property is extremely preoccupying and is causing daily irreversible damage, including the recent shelling of Saint Simeon. The lack of stability has also led to the illegal re-use of archaeological material and inappropriate new construction, including of roads. The continuing conflict also prevents access of the DGAM to the property, which would enable a better understanding of the damage that has occurred and is continuing, and the undertaking of first-aid measures. It is recommended that the World Heritage Committee express its deep concern about the escalation of the conflict and the reported damages.
For more information and the general decisions on the World Heritage properties of the Syrian Arab Republic (from 2013 till present), please check the following link: http://whc.unesco.org/en/soc/3348.