Of the 55 World Heritage sites listed as being under threat by the UNESCO, nearly half (21 sites) are located in the Arab world: one in Egypt, three in Palestine, three in Yemen, three in Iraq, five in Libya, and six in Syria.
Syria comprises six sites listed in the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in Danger. These sites were listed in 2013, during the ongoing armed conflict. They are:
Ancient City of Aleppo
Aleppo is the oldest and grandest Syrian city, with excavations pointing to its five-thousand-year history, bearing signs of countless civilizations, including the Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Mamluks, and Ottomans. The ancient city is replete with various antiquities, many of which have been taken as casualties of the war. Among these are the Citadel of Aleppo, Umayyad Mosque, ceilinged market, Saint Simon Citadel, around 35 historical minarets, and thousands of buildings.
Bosra was the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom in the first century CE, having once been reigned by the Romans, and later becoming the center of the Chair of the Episcopal Conference after the proliferation of Christianity. Some of its sites were damaged after being bombarded by Islamic State, including the Bosra Castle and theater, the celestial courtyard, the popular traditions museum, and ancient columns and towers.
Damascus was built in 3,000 BCE and has been at the crossroads of the majority of the civilizations that reigned in the Middle East. It was the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate, the most expansive Islamic Caliphate.
Damascus encompasses a number of valuable treasures: the Great Mosque of Damascus, Citadel of Damascus, Azm Palace, and the seven gates of the city wall, which were built in the Roman era, as well as markets, hospices, mosques, and churches.
Ancient Villages of Northern Syria
These include 40 villages spread across eight complexes in northwestern Syria, built between the first and the seventh century CE. These villages house archeological monuments including pagan temples, churches, and baths.
Krak des Chevaliers and Saladin Castle
The two citadels signify a paramount example of the cultural impact of the crusades between the 11th and the 13th century, as the fingerprints of the successive empires manifest themselves on these citadels: from the Byzantine era to the Franks and the Ayyubid dynasty.
The capital of Palmyra, which was built in the third century BCE and was later ruled by the Romans, succeeded by the Arabs. Its architecture throughout the first two centuries combined Greco-Roman techniques, local traditions, and the influence of Persia.
There appears to be no accurate record for the number of antiquities smuggled out of Iraq due to the successive waves of conflict that Iraq has endured. The first followed the US invasion in 2003, and the second was after the formation of Islamic State (then-ISIL) in 2014, which has since been stealing and smuggling monuments for trade purposes in the black market. Moreover, Islamic State also destroyed entire sites, for example, the shrines of the forty companions of the prophet, the Church of St. Ahudemmeh, Abu Tammam statue, Tal Afar Citadel, Mosul Library, Mosque of the Prophet Yunus, Mosul Museum, and the city of Nimrud.
The UNESCO list also comprises three Iraqi monuments.
Assus city is situated on the banks of the Tigris river, 60 kilometers south of Mosul. The city was established in the third century BCE, and between the 14th and ninth century BCE. It was the political and religious capital of the Assyrian Empire and was destroyed by the Babylonians. but prospered later.
Assur was listed in the UNESCO’s list of the World Heritage in Danger in 2003 not only due to the security instability and the smuggling in the country, but also after the building of a dam on the Tigris. Although the building has been suspended, the city remains in the list.
Located 80 kilometers south of Mosul, Hatra was built by the Seleucid Empire in the second century BCE. Centuries before the emergence of Islam, Arab tribes settled in the city and built temples, statues, gates, and walls around the city. Hatra remained intact during the Roman epoch, the Tatars, and the US invasion. However, Islamic State demolished great parts of it in 2015, and consequently it was listed by the UNESCO as being in danger.
Samarra was built by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mu’tasim. The city is located 130 kilometers north of Baghdad in 221 Hijri, as the capital of the Caliphate. It houses the Ali Al Hadi Shrine and Al-Askari Shrine, the 10th and the 11th Imams of the Shiite Imamate. Of its most notable ancient mosques is the Great Mosque of Samarra, with its famous minaret. Many of its antiquities remain buried underground.
In 2007, the city was included under the World Heritage in Danger list due to the security dangers on the one hand, and poor maintenance and drilling on the other.
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Zabid was the capital of Yemen from the 13th to the 15th century CE. Its history dates back to before Islam, when it was just a number of scattered villages. One of its symbolic antiquities is Jamiat al-Asha’irah, which landed the city the moniker of the “city of scholars,” as well as the old ports, the Nasseri Grand House (Zabid fortress), the citadel, 29 mosques, and hundreds of houses.
In 2000, the UNESCO added it to the list of World Heritage in Danger due to the random construction and restoration by its residents, and the government’s negligence in undertaking maintenance works. The situation worsened following the political crisis and the armed conflict in Yemen.
The Old City of Sana’a
It is one of the 25 most prominent tourist sites in the world. Some of its houses were built 400 years ago and are still inhabited. It has a wall and seven gates. According to popular belief, it is said to have been built by Ham, the son of Noah. It has been the capital of Yemen since the fourth century BCE, and has tens of mosques, public baths, and hundreds of archeological houses. In 2015, the UNESCO added the old city among the sites in danger as a consequence of the armed conflict.
Shibam is situated on the rocky highlands of Hadhramaut Valley. The city is characterized by its high tower buildings, which were referred to as “the first skyscrapers in history”. Shibam was the capital of Hadhramaut in 300 CE, and was listed in the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger list in 2015, after being burned during the Yemeni war.
Due to the armed conflict in Libya following the February 17 Revolution and the chaos that ensued, the UNESCO categorized five heritage sites under the list in danger for 2016.
Shahhat, also known as Cyrene, is situated in the Jebel Akhdar district. It is one of the oldest Greek cities in Libya. It comprises a collection of prominent antiquities, including the Greek Gate, the Temple of Hecate, the Greek Theater, the Baths of Trajan, Temple of Zeus, and others.
Liptes is located on the Mediterranean Coast, 120 kilometers east of Tripoli. It was one of the most significant cities of North Africa during the Roman era, nicknamed Liptes Magna. It was built by the Phoenicians in the seventh century BCE. The city is known for its outstanding monuments, such as the Greek Theater, the market center, Arch of Septimius Severus, and others.
Sabratha is situated west of Libya on the Mediterranean coast near Tunisia. It was built by the Phoenicians in the sixth century BCE, according to estimates. It was later controlled by the Romans, the Byzantine, and the Arabs. It has an entire city of monuments and comprises the famous arena theater, the graveyard, and columns, much of which was renovated during the British colonization of Libya, specifically between 1923 and 1936.
Located on the Libyan borders with Tunisia and Algeria, Ghadames lies 543 kilometers west of Tripoli. It was the main hub for commercial convoys between north and south of the Sahara, and was inhabited by the people of Carthage in 795 BCE, followed by the Romans in 19 BCE. The Arabs entered the city later under the leadership of Uqbah ibn Nafi in 42 Hijri. The city combines diverse antiquities, including Maqdoul Palace, Museum of Ghadames, Ra's Al Ghul, and others.
The Acacus Mountains are situated southwest of Libya, on the Libyan-Algerian borders. In the mountains are found sculptures and paintings dating back 21,000 years, and, in 1958, a mummy was discovered which goes back to 5,600 years.
In 2014, unidentified assailants damaged the rocky sculptures, including a grand elephant, giraffes, cows, and ostriches that date back to BCE.
The UNESCO listed three Palestinian sites as World Heritage in Danger due to the security risks in the country amid the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Old City of Jerusalem is home to Al Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, Solomon's Stables, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the grave of Moses (according to Christian belief), and the Virgin Mary churches in the Mount of Olives, the Monastery of Saint John of Khenchara, as well as many monasteries including Deir El-Sultan, Monastery of Qozhaya, and St. George's Monastery.
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
The birthplace of Jesus, located 10 kilometers outside of the Old City of Jerusalem, featuring the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route. The site also includes Latin, Greek, Orthodox, and Franciscan monuments, as well as Armenian monasteries and churches.
A small village on a high hill, 800 meters above sea level, it is located eight kilometers southwest of Jerusalem. The village was a fortified war area during the Greek era. It is famous for its entrancing landscapes and terraces dating back to the Middle Ages. It was added to the list following fears that Israel would build the separation barrier across the village.
During the January 25 Revolution, particularly after the Friday of Rage (January 28, 2011), the number of stolen monumental pieces from the stores and the archeological sites amounted to roughly 1,228 pieces, according to a statement by the Ministry of Antiquities at that time.
However, UNESCO placed Abu Mena, west of Alexandria, under the list of World Heritage in Danger. It is an archeological village that comprises the grave of Saint Mena, and it is claimed that the village was, in the early Middle Ages, a pilgrimage center for Christians in Egypt. However, the village ceased to exist, but was rediscovered in 1905 by a German archeological convoy. In the summer of 1907, large parts of the village were rediscovered.
In 1979, the UNESCO included the site under the list of World Heritage in Danger, and later in 2001 categorized it as being in danger due to the rising local water tables which threaten the area of corrosion.
The rescue initiatives for these antiquities have varied, whether local, regional, or global, the latest of which was during a conference held in December 2016 in Abu Dhabi. Representatives from 40 countries attended the conference after an invitation by French President François Hollande and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. By the end of the conference, it was agreed that a fund for the protection of the cultural heritage during armed conflicts will be established, in addition to an “international network for safe havens” for the heritage in danger.
In 2015, the UNESCO launched an initiative for the maintenance and protection of Iraqi antiquities, with the support of and funding from Japan, amounting to $1.5 million. Further, the UNESCO established the Unite4Heritage campaign to fight the destruction and illegal trafficking of antiquities. The UNESCO has put forth a strategy for methods to boost its activities in the field of safeguarding cultural heritage.
Other local initiatives were launched in Syria, such as My Country Syria, by the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, as well as community initiatives established through Facebook pages, namely, Syria's Expat Artefacts, Ensemble Pour Les Antiquités, and the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology.