The tragedy which has overwhelmed Syria during the past three years has few precedents in recent history in terms of its savage consequences for the civilian population. Leaving aside plague or epidemics on the scale of the influenza outbreak at the end of World War One, the loss of life and prolonged suffering among Syrian civilians is probably unprecedented for centuries, possibly since the last Mongol invasion under Tamerlane in 1400. The world has largely lost interest in a steadily rising death toll, which now probably exceeds 140,000. In a conflict involving human losses on such a scale, it may seem perverse to be distracted by what has happened to the country’s rich store of monuments. But Syria’s cultural heritage is invaluable, and its loss would leave us all diminished.
Before the conflict began, awareness of Syria’s extraordinary collection of ancient and Islamic sites had barely begun to penetrate beyond scholarly circles. Syria’s antiquities had been overshadowed by the European fascination with places linked to the Biblical narrative, often providing a distorted picture of the Middle East as a whole. The regions of the interior had been seen largely in the light of religious preoccupations that downplayed the significance of any events not directly convenient in terms of the Biblical narrative or which saw the Islamic experience largely in terms of Western preoccupations.