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In Photos: Syrian heritage suffered 'cultural apocalypse'

By Diyaruna and AFP

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In a picture taken March 31, 2016, a photographer holds his image of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, taken March 14, 2014, in front of the remains of the historic temple, which was destroyed by ISIS in September 2015. [Joseph Eid/AFP]

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A photograph taken March 31, 2016, shows the remains of Baalshmin temple, destroyed by ISIS in 2015, in the UNESCO-listed ancient city of Palmyra. [Joseph Eid/AFP]

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A beheaded and mutilated statue is seen in the destroyed museum in the ancient city of Palmyra on March 31, 2016. ISIS destroyed priceless heritage at the UNESCO-listed site on the grounds that it was idolatrous. [Joseph Eid/AFP]

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An opposition fighter walks in a devastated alley of Aleppo's old market, in the UNESCO-listed northern Syrian city on February 27, 2014. [AFP photo/Aleppo Media Centre/Zein al-Rifai]

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A member of the Syrian regime forces stands near the partially destroyed entrance of Aleppo's citadel on September 4, 2012, a day after regime troops backed by artillery and warplanes battled opposition fighters on multiple fronts. [Joseph Eid/AFP]

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A picture taken on April 25, 2013, shows the rubble of the minaret of Aleppo's ancient Umayyad mosque after it was blown up the previous day during clashes between Syrian regime and opposition forces. [Jalal al-Halabi/AFP]

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A photo taken July 31, 2013, shows the bullet-riddled dome of Khaled bin Walid mosque, whose mausoleum was partially destroyed during Syrian regime shelling in al-Khalidiyah district of Homs. [Joseph Eid/AFP]

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The Ottoman era Murad Pasha caravanserai (Khan Murad Pasha), which dates back to 1565 and serves as a museum with a collection of ancient artefacts and mosaics, is seen partially destroyed in the Idlib province city of Maaret al-Numan on June 16, 2015, following reported airstrikes by Syrian regime forces. [AFP Photo/Al-Maaraa Today/Ghaith Omran]

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A picture shows the interior of a burnt church at the monastery of Syriac Catholic Saint Elian, who lived in the fifth century AD, in al-Qaryatain, one of the last ISIS strongholds in central Syria, on April 4, 2016 -- a day after Syrian regime forces regained control of the town. [Joseph Eid/AFP]

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A picture shows the destroyed stone sarcophagus of Syriac Catholic Saint Elian at the entrance to his monastery in the town of al-Qaryatain in Homs province on April 4, 2016, after Syrian regime forces regained control of the town from ISIS. [Joseph Eid/AFP]

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A picture taken March 20, 2014, shows damage in the renowned Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers near the Syria-Lebanon border after pro-regime forces seized the fortress in their drive to sever opposition supply lines. [Sam Skaine/AFP]

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An aerial photo taken November 1 shows Syrians displaced by a Russia-backed regime offensive camped out at the UNESCO-listed site of Baqirha near the Turkish border, in a region of northwest Syria filled with abandoned Roman and Byzantine settlements. [Abdulaziz Ketaz/AFP]

PALMYRA -- Syria was once an archaeologist's paradise, home to some of the oldest and best-preserved jewels of ancient civilisations. But the conflict that erupted on March 15, 2011, has seen the worst destruction of heritage in generations.

Archaeological sites were damaged, museums were looted, old city centres were levelled and religious heritage was desecrated.

Standing in the Palmyra museum he ran for 20 years, Khalil al-Hariri remembers the trauma of having to flee the desert city and its treasures as they fell into the hands of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).

He described the day he returned to Palmyra and saw the broken antiquities and the museum in shambles as "the most difficult day of my life".

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A picture taken February 7 shows the damaged Temple of Bel in the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria's Homs province. Syria has six sites listed on the UNESCO elite list of world heritage, and all of them sustained some level of damage in the 10-year war. [Louai Beshara/AFP]

"They broke and smashed all the faces of statues that remained in the museum and which we could not save," he said.

Palmyra became a stage for public executions and other gruesome crimes, some of which were pictured and distributed in ISIS propaganda.

The headless body of chief archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad also was displayed there by ISIS henchmen who had tortured him to get him to reveal where the site's artefacts had been transferred.

Bent on their enterprise of cultural genocide, the extremists blew up Palmyra's Baal Shamin shrine. They destroyed the Temple of Bel and the Arch of Triumph, looted what they could from the museum and defaced statues and sarcophagi.

The sacking of the ancient city drew comparisons with the destruction by Afghanistan's Taliban of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.

The Taliban demolished the two statues on the orders of then-leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Carved into a cliff in the 4th and 5th centuries, the two were once the tallest standing Buddhas in the world.

'Complete, utter destruction'

The war did not spare a single one of the country's regions.

"In two words, it's a cultural apocalypse," said Justin Marozzi, an author and historian who has written extensively on the region and its heritage.

"Over the past two millennia of Syrian history, nothing worse has happened than what did during the war," said Syria's former antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdel Karim. "Complete and utter destruction."

"We're not talking just about an earthquake in some place or a fire in another -- or even war in one city -- but destruction across the whole of Syria," he said.

Before the war, the northern city of Aleppo -- one of the world's longest continuously inhabited -- boasted markets, mosques, caravanserais and public baths. But the brutal siege imposed on opposition fighters left it disfigured.

The Syrian regime, which from 2015 benefitted from Russia's military might, relied heavily on air power to claw back the territory.

"I can't forget the day the minaret of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo fell, or the day the fire ripped through the city's ancient markets," Abdel Karim said.

"Around 10% of Syria's antiquities were damaged, and that's high for a country with so many relics and historical sites," he said.

A report published last year by the Gerda Henkel Foundation and the Syrian Society for the Protection of Antiquities said more than 40,000 artefacts had been looted from museums and archeological sites since the start of the war.

'Wound for all humanity'

Syria has six sites on the UNESCO elite list of world heritage, and all of them sustained some level of damage in the war.

Besides Palmyra and Aleppo, the ancient cities of Damascus and Bosra also suffered. The Krak des Chevaliers crusader castle was caught in the fighting, as were a group of old villages near the Turkish border known as "the dead cities".

Other major heritage landmarks sustained severe destruction, such as the site of Apamea, an ancient Roman-era city on the Orontes river known for a colonnade that ran even longer than Palmyra's.

At its peak, Palmyra was a symbol of a pluralistic civilisation, a commercial hub on the Silk Road that was a cultural crossroads. Its architecture was a blend of influences from ancient Rome and Greece, Persia and Central Asia.

What was destroyed during the war in Palmyra, and by extension in the whole of Syria, is evidence of a multicultural past, a certain ideal of civilisation.

"All of us should care about the destruction of Syria's heritage because, as well as being Syrian and Arab, these ancient sites and cities and monuments form part of our common cultural patrimony," Marozzi said.

"Places like Palmyra have a universal significance and value. They are part of our world civilisation, they are milestones in our history as humans and so anything that damages them is a wound for all humanity."

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