Continued from page 1

A series of cultures have left their mark - from biblical civilizations to Christian Crusaders and Muslim kingdoms.

“What we know of Syrian heritage has already provided a huge quantity of information, but we can safely say that the part that has not yet been studied is even bigger,” said Mr. Martin.

Each incident of destruction “is like burning a page in the book of history of mankind,” he said.

The heritage also helped fuel tourism, giving a much-needed economic boost before the uprising erupted more than a year ago. More than 8.5 million tourists visited Syria in 2010, 40 percent more than the year before. Now there are virtually none.

The 2,000-year-old Roman ruins of Palmyra - an ancient oasis city more than four centuries old and one of the biggest tourist draws - is deserted.

Government forces have surrounded the ruins and a nearby town and have set up a base in a historic castle on a hilltop overlooking the site, deep in Syria’s central deserts.

Heritage in the crossfire

Besides the break-in at Krak des Chevaliers in March, gunmen have also targeted a museum in the city of Hama. They have stolen antiques and a priceless gold statue dating back centuries, said Mr. Jammous, of the government’s museum agency.

Other sites have been endangered in the crossfire of the daily battles.

Several weeks ago, activists in the northwestern province of Idlib said, troops and dissidents battled near the ruins of Elba, a Bronze Age city where archaeologists in the 1960s discovered a massive trove of cuneiform tables that revolutionized their understanding of the ancient Mideast.

The once-bustling covered ancient market in old Homs - famous for its unusually tall arched roof where people bargained for colorful textiles, rugs, perfumes and clothes - has been heavily damaged. Its walls are now blackened from a fire. Its walkways littered with debris and shop shutters twisted and pierced with shrapnel.

Traditional Homs houses with arched doorways and inner courtyards have also been bombed.

Mosques have served as launching pads for anti-government protests in Syria. Government troops have targeted many of them, particularly in the provinces of Daraa, birthplace of the Syrian revolution.

Early on in the uprising, the government shelled Daraa’s Omari Mosque, built during the Islamic conquest of Syria about 1,400 years ago. Activists say government forces deliberately sabotaged the mosque and hid weapons inside it to prove that armed gangs were sheltering there.

Videos show the bombed-out minarets and shell-pocked facades of several mosques and churches in Homs. They include the Umm el-Zunnar church, which was built underground in 59 A.D.

Story Continues →