- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 8, 2012

BEIRUT — On its towering hilltop perch, one of the world’s best preserved Crusader castles held off a siege by the Muslim warrior Saladin nearly 900 years ago.

Lawrence of Arabia hailed the beauty of the Krak des Chevaliers, one of the crown jewels of Syria’s tourism.

Now the ancient fortress has fallen victim to the chaos of Syria’s uprising against the brutal regime of President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Recently, gunmen broke into the castle, threw out the staff and began excavations to loot the site, said Bassam Jammous, general director of the Antiquities and Museum Department in Damascus.

Syria’s turmoil is threatening the country’s rich archaeological heritage, experts warn.

Some of the country’s most significant sites have been caught in the crossfire in battles between regime forces and rebels. Others have been turned into military bases, raising archaeologists’ fears of damage.

The government’s shelling of neighborhoods where the opposition is holed up has smashed historic mosques, churches and markets. Looters have stolen artifacts from excavations and museums.

In one of the most egregious examples, shells thudded into the walls of the 12th century al-Madeeq Citadel, raising flames and columns of smoke as regime forces battled with rebels in March.

Local activists said regime forces carried out the assault and afterward moved tanks into the hilltop castle. Later Internet videos showed bulldozers knocking through part of the walls to create an entrance.

The government and opposition have traded blame for damaging and looting of sites around the country.

Blaming the government

A group of European and Syrian archaeologists tracking the threats through eyewitness reports from the ground blames the government. In several cases, Syrian troops have directly hit historic sites and looted them.

“We have facts showing that the government is acting directly against the country’s historical heritage,” said Rodrigo Martin, a Spanish archaeologist who has led past research missions inside Syria.

An important crossroads, Syria’s rich archaeological treasures extend over millennia.

The capital, Damascus, is often claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Archaeologists have uncovered cities dating back 5,000 years to the early Bronze Age, and the country is dotted with hills that likely hide more such cities, still not excavated.

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