Usually a discussion of historical architecture, architectural monuments, ancient sites, and political turmoil is a microcosm (read: mine field) of theory and ideology, typically involving problems like History, preservationism, monuments, relics, precedent, ownership, warfare, identity, and morality. All of these issues are clearly relevant to the discussion of the Syrian war and the relationship between the ongoing conflict and the country’s historical architecture. Admittedly, a debate on endangered Syrian historical architecture seems irrelevantly academic, as detached from reality as an archeologist mourning the loss of a dig site during a conflict with a civilian body count hovering around 200,000. To clarify: the primary trauma of this conflict is the one suffered by the Syrian people; Syria’s historical architecture is merely a tool to enrich our understanding of this war. To that end, these charged platonic issues are made secondary by focusing on the historical architecture itself and the ideologically and physically active or passive roles it plays during conflicts like this. These possible roles are varied and fascinating, and comparing some of these with the at-risk historical architecture in Syria sets the Syrian war apart from many other precedents.
On the surface, the loss of certain historical sites to Syria’s violent conflict is easily likened to many other losses inflicted on architectural and art history in recent conflicts. Predictably, laments for Syria’s historical architecture associate it with more famous and recent embattled architectural icons, like the Bamiyan Buddhas or Tahrir Square. In such cases, these would-be precedents are fundamentally misunderstood, serving better as comparisons than equivalences. Fortunately, such a comparison articulates Syria’s unique situation, and its historical architecture’s distinctly idiosyncratic role in the ongoing war.
Architecture can be an active, unifying symbol during war, as was the case with Tahrir Square (and continues to be, as the Revolution continues to find its path toward a stable government), but that is absolutely not the case with Syria’s historical architecture. Certainly the Egyptian Revolution was not the same as the ongoing 2.5-year civil war in Syria; the contexts are gravely and morbidly different, and the two roles of these countries’ historical architecture reflect that. For the Revolution, Tahrir was profound and iconic. A nation-wide popular movement that ousted a 30-ear old dictatorship, the Revolution has entered history in the image of hundreds of thousands of people packed into and around Tahrir Square, 24 hours a day for two weeks. For that span, it was the site of battles and violence between protestors and government forces, as well as unbending courage, hope, and unprecedented civil solidarity. The Syrian war, as a diametric example, is a conflict with no center, iconic or otherwise. Suggested as a ‘unifying force’ in the early days of the war, Alellpo’s ancient Umayyad Mosque served, if at all, as an initial meeting place like any other mosque or civic center would. And even this poorly considered ‘precedent’ was rapidly left behind as the movement raced across the city and national landscape with alarming and violent rates.
The mosque itself, nearing 1,400 years old with a capacity for 6,000 people, hardly has the iconic power to represent such a widespread and morbid war. Considering the scale of atrocities committed in Syria in the past two years, it may be more pertinent to question whether or not such a war can give rise to a single symbol or icon, architectural or otherwise. What is certain is that of the remainder of historical sites in Syria, none fill that role—either ideologically or physically. If it is possible for such a broad and protracted conflict as this to be bound into a single, active architectural unity, none of Syria’s UNESCO or otherwise protected sites is as much a part of the war as Tahrir was to Egypt’s February Revolution. The Umayyad Mosque is definitely not such a thing; instead being a passive architectural element at most, and far less involved than other at-risk historical sites in danger of demolition.
Demolition itself is one of architecture’s roles during conflicts, and one that clearly illustrates how the ongoing Syrian war is separate from other regional conflicts. The host of historical buildings intentionally destroyed for the sake of an ideological conflict haunts the historical landscape. An ancient example would be the Roman obliteration of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70CE after the Jewish revolt that reclaimed the city for a brief time. More recent (and relatable, hopefully) examples include the Babri Masjid Mosque (Burkina Faso, destroyed 1992), Al-Askari Mosque (Iraq, destroyed 2006), and the Sufi tombs in Timbuktu (Mali, destroyed 2012). Another horrifying and popular example is the destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Province in 2001. But these examples exhibit fundamental differences from the besieged and demolished historical architecture in Syria. Explicitly: these would-be ‘precedents’ of demolished historical architecture exemplify Architectural Warfare, in which architecture is specifically, individually targeted and physically destroyed in order to exploit its ideological identity.
For these examples, historical architecture (and art) is actively taking part in their respective conflicts both ideologically and physically. These mosques, tombs, and sculptures embodied ideological identities for groups of people through their material existence; their physical maintenance and continuation was a passive preservation of tradition, rite, and heritage. For the most part they were less famous and important than other sites, less iconic, until they were drafted into the ranks of active ideological conflict.
The means of this conscription: demolition. With that, these passive buildings were transformed into physically and ideologically active icon-weapons against the cultures/sects that supported them. Demolition is the last physical role architecture available to architecture—in that afterwards, there is no building to speak of and therefore no physical impressions—but through it the dormant ideological power of the building is used as an often times devastating blow to a peoples’ history and identity. In the case of the tombs in Timbukto, Ansar Dine destroyed them as a way to expurgate traces of ideological deviance (Sufism, as they see it). For Bamiyan, there was a multitude of statements being made by the destruction of the Buddhas, shouted out to both the people of the Taliban’s new Afghanistan and to the international community. The golden domed mosque was weaponized against its Shia community during the [ongoing] ideological conflicts for Iraq’s future. In each example, Architectural Warfare is actually targeting a group’s heritage, and in a way their legitimacy, their right to permanence; the architecture is just the most efficient weapon—perhaps the most devastating and powerful active physical and ideological role architecture plays during conflicts.
But the Syrian conflict is different from these examples. The damage, looting, and demolition of Syria’s historical architecture are categorically outside of Architectural Warfare. Instead, as upsetting as it may be to historians, Syria’s at-risk architecture is simply collateral damage—a physically and ideologically passive background victim of a conflict focused on power. This can be seen in the most appropriate and germane precedent for compromised Syrian cultural heritage during internal conflicts: the 1982 Hama Massacre.
In February 1982, in an attack on anti-government forces—with whom the government had been engaged since 1976—the al-Assad regime raided the town of Hama in western Syria. For three weeks the Syrian Army, complete with tanks and aerial bombing, leveled Hama’s central ‘old city.’ Estimates vary, but sources place the number dead between 10,000 and 40,000, the majority of these being civilians.
Famous for its recurrent battles against contemporary regimes over the last half-century, Hama is also known for its norias, massive water wheels that have been continuously reconstructed in Hama since the Byzantine Era (though evidence suggests they have been in the region much longer). These were used for agricultural purposes throughout the region, but Hama’s own collection has served as a source of pride and tourism for the town. Only seventeen norias remain in Hama, all out of use. When razing Hama’s city center during the 1982 siege, the al-Assad regime also damaged and destroyed many of these vernacular historical artifacts. But, like the many monuments and sites that are at risk during the current civil war, the norias were far from being the primary target of that siege.
Instead, they were Architectural Collateral: historical and architectural artifacts that are accidental, inconsequential material losses during a struggle for power. Architecture couldn’t play a more passive role in a violent conflict. The central condition of the 1982 Hama Massacre, and of the ongoing Syrian conflict, is open war; no obstacle, relic, or notion of an historical artifact is permitted to intercede for peace or the downscaling of blind, destructive violence. (Although, we probably shouldn’t expect a regime that has killed as many civilians as the al-Assad family to be tempered by historical monuments in the first place.) The people themselves are the direct target, not their heritage or their identity; this conflict is not essentially ideological. The historical architecture from which they draw pride isn’t even considered as a weapon, just collateral damage.
However, even in its collateral way, besieged historical architecture in Syria is finding a different kind of physical activity in a surprising (and ironic) return of program that has archeologists and historians racked with anxiety. Although second-hand destruction and looting is coming to many passive historical sites, others are actively partaking in the war by resuming (or assuming) original roles as fortresses, citadels and houses. Some of this is natural in dense urban conditions—even for historical sites—especially during urban warfare. Fires break out and spread through urban neighborhoods, many without sufficient drinking water to support the population much less preserve ancient hovels serving no purpose for the living. Other sites that have long been protected by the Syrian historical preservation authority are being claimed for much needed, newly reconstructed housing. Archeologists lament this situation, however let’s consider the reality that this isn’t even a consequence of war but occurs in urban centers all the time. Orhan Pamuk recounts this exact situation in the center of undeniably historic Istanbul, where whole palace blocks were burnt and destroyed, broken into plots, and these plots filled with apartments and storefronts that change every few years. It is a foiled Preservationist crusade to postpone spatial urban reuse; an error to value useless rubble urban remains over shelter and housing for a people, especially an embattled people.
The most publicly lamented losses of at-risk historical architecture actually have to do with the massive UNESCO World Heritage Sites that have actively involved themselves in the Syrian war. Iconic among these are the Citadel at Aleppo and the Krak des Chevaliers, and although the damage inflicted on them is of a collateral nature, unlike Hama’s norias it occurred because these sites are actively partaking in the war. Rebel forces have inhabited certain sites as defensive positions and destruction occurs as the multiple factions of the war rage around the monuments. In these cases, the damage is not so much a rape or violation of the sites, but a return of program—of their original program—to architectural monuments that have been claimed by the benign passivity of History.
Even then, let’s consider what these UNESCO monuments really are: on the one side there are internationally funded archeological projects that provide a wealth of information about the origins of civilization in the region. On the other side there are fortresses and monuments of foreign imperial forces that impressed taxation (Rome), or fortresses of Crusaders that pillaged and violated the land and its people for centuries. It is not particularly difficult to understand the irony involved when historians mourn the damage inflicted during battle on a citadel’s doorjambs, as is the case for Aleppo’s Citadel. Such damage is, in a way, what the citadel typology was meant for. Personally, I can’t help but imagine (or be satisfied by) the complex irony and satisfaction on the faces of the Knights Hospitaller when their famous fortress-turned-museum was looted and occupied by rebel forces, signaling the return of war to that place. The monuments of Syria have once again become physically active architectural installations. Perhaps the subsequent damage should be considered more along the lines of a battle scar than the endangerment of History.
This role may not be unique to Syria. But in the discussion of protected or historical sites that have been destroyed or damaged during violent conflicts, physically reactivated architectural monuments certainly set Syria apart from a wide array of other examples. Physical participation in the war separates Syria’s historical architecture from the benign, physically passive roles played by most Architectural Collateral. But when caught in a violent, heinous conflict between multiple factions, between civilians and their government, historical architecture can either partake or be sidelined. This is especially the case in Syria where the war is narrowly and murderously focused on the people and is not a conflict that might employ architectural destruction as an ideological weapon. Of course, this is an effort to understand this horrible war using architecture as a tool. Undoubtedly, the Syrian rebels’ thoughts are focused more on the martial efficacy of taking up the Citadel of Aleppo as a defensive position and not on bringing back long forgotten program to an historical monument. Personally, I find this return of program kind of heroic, actually, and in terms of theory the image is twofold: as the championing of programmatic, architectural activity over staunch western Preservationism; and more importantly as a sign of a people battling for their future whatever the cost.