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“The saddest museum director in the world”, Aleppo’s History in Ruins


Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim never saw the extent of damage to most of the major cities in Syria in his life, or that of the millions of other internally displaced persons during the war.


The Citadel of Aleppo was the peak of Arab military strength in the ancient lands of Syria. Its large towers meant for defense reign over the cities hundreds of Mosques and marketplaces known as Sukhs, garrisoned by troops at all times. The Citadel is home to many powers from early Roman and Christian influences to that of the 12th century Arab empire, known for shaping most of the culture of the middle east and that of humanity. In its time, the symbol of strength in Aleppo was not only a religious and military hub, but home to royalty with the construction of its palace. Within Aleppo are traces of the first sophisticated societies on the planet, mashing multiple centuries of culture and history to create a site of human heritage.

Much of Aleppo and its monuments are now rubble, unrecognizable from before the Syrian Civil War.


Syrian director-general of museums and antiquities, Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim, has been working feverishly to stop the rapid destabilization of sites similar to the Citadel of Aleppo around Syria. These sites became hot zones for bombing following the Arab spring of 2011, Syria began its descent into chaos as the world watched from Facebook and Youtube. Civil protests became violent clashes, however unlike in Ferguson after the police clashes with protesters subsided following racial tensions, civil war erupted from every corner in Syria. The world watched as Free Syrian Army rebels stormed Aleppo and the south of Syria, Kurdish troops took control of northern Syria, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) brutally occupy most of eastern Syria. Government troops continued savage fighting with all three sides in places like Homs, Hama, and Aleppo where the use of chemical weapons was discovered alongside the blatant bombing of religious and civilian targets. It’s a conflict between the armed and the innocent, with very few political voices or institutions left to protect those who live near UNESCO sites, ordinary individuals that have taken personal responsibility to protect human culture. 

Among the government barrel bombs that targeted places like hospitals, schools, and apartment complexes in Aleppo, a large majority of these inaccurate high explosive devices dropped from planes struck mosques and other priceless historical and heritage sites in the city. These places were previously thought to be off limits and many civilians looked for shelter near and around some of the longest standing structures in Syria. It is now known that much of the city is rubble, and most of the sites have been damaged to some degree due to extensive bombing and looting.

Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim is attempting to recover nearly 10,000 heritage sites across Syria during the conflict from destruction. It was estimated that ISIS militants had removed nearly 300,000 artifacts to unknown locations, possibly for illegal sale in the black market. “A secular Muslim of Armenian-Kurdish ancestry, he claims in fact not to be paid directly by the regime but rather through Damascus University where [Abdulkarim] had been director of its archeology department In August of 2012”. Without monetary support from the current Syrian regime, many archaeologists like the Syrian director-general must work tirelessly against a raging battle; the sheer danger of these tasks could costs one's life at any moment. 

Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad has been in blatant opposition with the UN and a NATO coalition that began airstrikes on Syrian positions in 2014. Large shipments of arms and even troops provided by Hezbollah has inflamed the conflict, as a questionable amount of fighters in Syria are foreign. Russian troops have been seen with the Syrian military, operating by advising and training regime troops that inflame the conflict even more. International tampering in the conflict matters as there still isn’t a government or organization that is safeguarding the thousands of years old artifacts and religious structures, besides unpaid professors and scholars. On the other hand, there are many nations offering aid and equipment to prolong the fighting on either side of the conflict without added consideration to Syria’s heritage.

Perhaps the most significant reason this conflict has been harmful to the Syrian people is due to the refugees it has created, not only through violence but also with the loss of international tourism. When the structures that UNESCO had declared heritage sites were attacked and damaged, the area of Aleppo and that of Syria as a whole during wartime became unreachable for civilians. Tourism businesses that thrive on the ancient archaeology and construction of the Citadel withered away alongside the hotels, traveling agencies, and general commerce that allowed nearly 8.5 million citizens to have jobs prior to the bombings. Many families have left the beautiful mosques and bazaars they grew up around to find safety, as the people that live off of them can no longer maintain the integrity of the structures. 




There is no nation or military that will safeguard the centuries of unseen history that is taken for granted, as this a civil war that divided a nation's culture between its government and people. Dr. Abdulkarim stated that “there is not one heritage just for the Assad government and one for the opposition groups. … That heritage, too, belongs to all humanity”. The Director-general was awarded the Cultural Heritage Resource Prize in 2014 as a result of his efforts for humanity and the civilians of Syria, a majority of whom have no voice in the safeguard of their monuments and lives.

Fast forward to the present day, and the conflict still rages in either direction. The recent US involvement either means more coverage for the harmed sites or more fighting with weapons of even greater magnitude. NATO ally Turkey, attacks US backed Syrian and Kurdish rebels while Russia and the Assad regime continue to fight with the Islamic State and all other factions. Syria remains to be carved up by foreign powers and nobody seems to be doing anything meaningful for its people. As it is, there are very few people discussing the importance of every mosque or cultural structure that is bombed or even the loss of life that comes with them. The intertwined geopolitical conflict combined with an unconventional use of weapons on civilian targets leads one to question if anyone will do something about this great loss of history. The citizens of Aleppo may very well return to find everything reduced to rubble, shattered homes and no jobs along with the erasing of a shared culture.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.