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Castles, Ancient Treasures Under Fire in Syria—Possibly Beyond Repair

As shells rip through ancient citadels and artifacts go missing, experts worry some damage may be beyond repair.

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Aleppo, Syria's ancient citadel in more peaceful times (file picture).

As fighting intensified last week in Syria's Old City of Aleppo, shells bombarded the city's medieval citadel (picture).

Video: Troops in the Citadel of Aleppo

Aleppo's citadel is the latest Syrian treasure to be caught in the line of fire. The fighting that began in 2011 has taken a staggering human toll—reportedly more than 20,000 killed—and done grave damage to the country's ancient sites as well: Roman ruins, Byzantine churches, Islamic fortresses, Ottoman mosques and homes. (Related: how an ancient Roman city thrived in an infertile Syrian desert.)

The rich collection of buildings and artifacts attests to Syria's 5,000 years of civilization. "Almost all the main chapters of human civilization have a part written in Syria," said Rodrigo Martin, spokesperson for Syrian Archaeological Heritage Under Threat, a group of European and Syrian archaeologists who have tracked damage to Syria's heritage since clashes began.

Babylonians, Greeks, and Persians all fought for control of the region, which was a crossroads for trade between Asia and Europe. Two Roman emperors, Alexander Severus and Philip the Arab, were born in Syria. For an archaeologist in the 21st century, Syria is a place where you can unearth a significant artifact in nearly any spot you turn a trowel.

(See National Geographic magazine pictures of Syria in quieter times.)

Syria Sites Beyond Repair?

Just as the Aleppo citadel suffered damage, so did the renowned Krak des Chevalier castle (picture), which was built by Frankish crusaders from France in the 12th century. Earlier this year Syrian news reported that armed gunmen entered Krak des Chevalier either to loot it or use it as a fortification. Videos posted online in July show that the well-preserved fortress, a UN World Heritage site since 2006, has been shelled by tanks.

Video: Krak des Chevalier Under Fire

When the fighting subsides, there may be efforts to restore Syria's famous monuments. Indeed, in the past ten years, archaeologists have recognized the country's efforts to preserve its landmarks. But there's concern that some of the current damage is beyond repair. In towns like Homs (map), noted Martin, "there will not be money to recover the traditional Ottoman architecture, because it is not viewed by decision-makers as being as important."

Apamea, a town that dates back to at least the third century B.C., was targeted by fighters—and looters. A video posted online in March shows explosions near the iconic Roman-era colonnades, where archaeologists had reconstructed 400 of the original 1,200 columns.

Looters allegedly used specialized machinery to remove mosaics and the decorative upper ends of the columns. In May INTERPOL launched a search for artifacts taken from the site.

After Destruction, Looting

The looting at Apamea could be a harbinger of things to come.

"Looting," predicts archaeologist Emma Cunliffe, a Ph.D. candidate at the U.K.'s Durham University, "will pose a bigger problem later on." In a report released in May, Cunliffe noted that, despite preventive measures taken by Syrian authorities, museums in Homs, Hama (map), and Ar Raqqah (map) had been pillaged, and more are at risk.

The decrease in security for archaeological sites has given looters easy access. "Thousands of items are stolen this way, never to be returned."

Even now artifacts from pillaged museums and archaeological sites in Syria are flowing across its borders. In April Arab television reported that a vehicle stopped by customs officials at the border between Syria and Lebanon was discovered to contain more than a thousand artifacts, including coins, sculptures, mosaics, and antique jewelry.

This ravaging of Syria's heritage will leave a bitter legacy.

The history that once may have promoted cohesion, pride, and a booming tourist industry has now become a symbol of a nation in ruins. But why do these places matter in the wake of such human tragedy? For Cunliffe, the two are inseparable: "You shouldn't only look at the people, or only at the archaeology. The people made these places. It all comes back to the people."