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Revisiting Syria’s War-Torn Treasures

Amidst the ghastly realities that have emerged from a seemingly-endless war, historical sites in Syria have been heavily ravaged, even permanently ruined for some. Using Maxar’s high-resolution satellite images, gaze upon the consequences of a grueling nine-year-war that has damaged Syria’s historical landmarks.

High-resolution satellite imagery has proven to be a cogent tool for detecting change and assessing damage to an area, building or structure in the aftermath of a natural disaster or conflict. At iMMAP, our Geoinformatics Unit has been employing a number of methods, including comparing pre and post-event images to help our partners in the humanitarian and development sectors analyze damage to urban infrastructures, a method that inspired and enabled us to uncover the devastation inflicted upon Syria’s storied historical treasures.

The Ruins of Palmyra

Palmyra is an ancient city situated in present-day Homs in Syria. Archaeologists date Palmyra’s origins back to the Stone Age (began around 10,000 BC) . Once a prosperous regional center, their inhabitants known as Palmyrenes were renowned merchants who established colonies along the Silk Road and operated throughout the Roman Empire.

Due to its eventful past and eminent place in history books, Palmyra was a renowned tourist destination offering visitors a range of sites to marvel at such as the Triclinium of the Agora, Temple of Baal-Shamin, the Funerary Temple, Diocletian’s Wall and the Baths of Diocletian among others.

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Now, a sizable portion of what made Palmyra a noteworthy and cherished landmark was totaled by ISIS, including cherished antiquities like the aforementioned Temple of Baal-Shamin, Temple of Bel and the Lion of Al-lat statue. According to archaeologist Paolo Matthiae, about 20 to 30 percent has been damaged and that “70% of Palmyra can be rebuilt.”

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The Great Mosque of Aleppo

Built in the beginning of the 8th century, the Great Mosque of Aleppo, also known as the Great Umayyad Mosque, was one of the largest mosques in the whole of Aleppo. The mosque was purportedly home to the remains of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. He is also described in some Biblical texts as an uncle to Jesus Christ himself.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was founded by the Umayyad Dynasty in 715 on the site of a Byzantine church. UNESCO described it as “one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world.”

The mosque’s renowned five-storey minaret was first erected between 1094 and 1098. As reported by Atlas Obscura, it was a double-walled structure built of limestone blocks, connected by iron clamps and molten lead, which was decorated by carved bands of Arabic calligraphy and adorned with floral motifs. Aside from its religious importance and architectural splendor, the Great Mosque also played a pivotal role in the city’s social life and ambience, with its prayer hall gates acting as a gateway that leads directly onto Aleppo’s ageless souks.

Due to its strategic location at the heart of one of Syria’s largest cities, armed opposition groups seized the mosque early in 2013. On the 24th of April 2013, after an exchange of heavy fire between armed opposition groups and pro-government of Syria forces, the mosque was severely damaged, including the total destruction of the renowned minaret and its sculpted colonnades. The mosque is currently undergoing restoration and renovation, spearheaded by architects, engineers, stonemasons and woodworkers overseen by Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums and the Syria Trust for Development, and bankrolled by a charitable foundation linked to the family of Kosovo ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov.

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The Monastery of Saint Elian

The Monastery of Saint Elian was a Syrian Catholic monastery near the town of Al-Qaryatayn, situated in the governorate of Homs. Saint Elian was a saint revered by both Christians and Muslims. The landmark once housed a fifth-century tomb and served as a major pilgrimage site, particularly to those seeking the Saint’s cure for their illnesses and ailments. The Monastery also bore an inscription affirming its protection under a local Muslim ruler, Emir Sayfudullah, which reflected the peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians during the fifteenth century.

The Monastery was a building adorned by stone decorated with circular patterns. Every year, thousands of people, Muslims and Christians, packed Al-Qaryatayn to celebrate the festival of Saint Elian held on September 9, for a day of prayer, processions and celebration.

The town of Al-Qaryatayn had turned into a sanctuary, a remote location Syrians inhabited to seclude themselves from the hostilities that engulfed the country after the 2011 uprisings. Internally displaced Syrians inundated the monastery with tents to shelter themselves and their families. However, in 2015, ISIS claimed control of the town. In August of that same year, ISIS demolished the monastery through the use of bulldozers.

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Mosque of Uwais Al-Qarni and Ammar Ibn Yassir

Uwais Al-Qarni was a Muslim saint and philosopher, who lived in Saudi Arabia, during the time of the Muslim prophet, Muhammad. He was killed in the Battle of Siffin, just 40 km away from Ar-Raqqa. His shrine is situated alongside that of Ammar Ibn Yassir’s, one of the first converts to Islam and a companion of the prophet, who was also killed in the aforementioned battle. Both figures are highly-revered by Shia Muslims.

Thanks to a partnership between the governments of Syria and Iran, the mosque was completed in 2003, fifteen years after its commencement in 1988. The mosque was a well-adorned architectural creation, largely embroidered in blue-colored patterns that closely resembled a style originated by the ancient Babylonians, and a notable landmark in Ar-Raqqa. Shia Muslims deemed it a pilgrimage site.

On March 26, 2014, the mosque, due to its importance to Shia Muslims, was blown up in its entirety by ISIS.

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Mari

Thanks to the unearthing of 25,000 cuneiform tablets, the discovery of Mari in 1933 has provided archaeologists with a deeper understanding of the geopolitical map of ancient Mesopotamia and Syria, particularly the urban centers of Bronze Age Mesopotamia and the tumultuous politics that engulfed in the second millennium BC.

Under the jurisdiction of the Deir ez-Zor governorate, Mari was the site of relentless excavation activity carried out by a French archaeologists. Mari was an ancient city-state that flourished as a trade center, acting as an intermediary between Sumer, Eblaite kingdom and the Levant. The earliest major structure dates back to around 2500–2300 BC.

Under ISIS control, Mari was hit by a flurry of looting activity. According to a report by The Guardian, more than 1,500 looting pits were recorded between 2013 and 2015.

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Armenian Genocide Memorial Church

Based in Deir-ez-Zor, the church was part of a memorial complex that was created as an act of dedication to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. According to historians like Paul R. Bartrop and Steven L. Jacobs, Deir ez-Zor was an area used as a death march camp by Ottoman forces, where it is “estimated that as many as 200,000 Armenians died of starvation or illness… and as many as 160,000 were killed.”

Work and construction of the church commenced in December 1989 and was formally consecrated by Catholicos Karekin II of the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia on May 4, 1991. The church pointed upwards to embrace the sky with pride and glory. Underneath the church there was a hall, the Column of Resurrections that housed the remains of victims of the Armenian Genocide, more specifically, bones that were dug from the Syrian desert. Every year, on April 24, tens of thousands of Armenian pilgrims from all over the world visited the Deir-ez-Zor complex to commemorate the genocide victims.

On September 21, 2014, the memorial complex where the church was situated was blown up, allegedly by ISIS. The church (recognized by the protruding minaret in the time series below) is officially considered ruined beyond repair.

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Roman Theatre of Bosra

Based in the ancient city of Bosra within the governorate of Dar’a, this theatre is among the largest of the Ancient Roman civilization. It is also among the best preserved across the Roman empire.

Substantially restored between 1947 and 1980, the Roman Theatre of Bosra is deemed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The theatre is 102 meters across and can seat around 15,000 people. It was built with the use of black basalt, in either the second quarter or half of the second century AD.

Despite being in the center of military activities, between armed opposition groups and pro-government of Syria forces, the theatre suffered minimal damage compared to its fellow architectural marvels. As reported by Arab News, the theatre had “a hole blown into the steps, a small pit on the stage and small pockmarks on columns.” According to the head of the local civil council, “no more than five percent of the theatre has been damaged.”

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iMMAP’s Data Lab Stories is a collection of stories curated from experts and data archives, an initiative to uncover and share meaningful insights while showcasing iMMAP’s support to the humanitarian and development community.

iMMAP’s Geoinformatics Unit is located in the MENA Regional Office and houses experts in various fields including geographic information systems and remote sensing. The team’s latest innovation is a world-first Geo-Humanitarian Open Data Cube aimed at increasing the impact of Earth Observation data across the Middle East. The team has been analyzing humanitarian activities that involve the understanding of location-based information and has supported projects related to detecting and analyzing damage to urban areas in Yemen and Syria since 2017.

iMMAP is an international not-for-profit organization that provides information management services to humanitarian and development organizations, enabling partners to make informed decisions that ultimately provide high-quality targeted assistance to the world’s most vulnerable populations.

For more information, email info-mena@immap.org or visit www.immap.org.

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iMMAP is an international nongovernmental organization that provides information management services to humanitarian and development organizations.

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