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Growing concern over Syria heritage sites

By Sylvia Smith
BBC News

image captionAll six Unesco sites in Syria are now listed as "endangered" on the World Heritage list

A centre set up to recognise Arab cultural and natural heritage is beginning its work amid growing concerns about the preservation of historic structures in Syria.

The Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage in Bahrain, which works under the auspices of Unesco - the UN's educational, scientific and cultural body - aims to highlight the rich inheritance in a region where conflict too often dominates the headlines.

The Manama headquarters, part of the Gulf state's ministry of culture arts complex, has been creating a new regional world heritage website in Arabic.

It is training new archivists and launching an ambitious educational programme to drive home the point that once lost, heritage can never be replaced.

media captionMounir Bouchenaki, the new Director of ARC-WH (Arab Regional Centre - World Heritage) will face fresh challenges in the role.

The centre is maintaining almost daily contact with colleagues in Syria.

Mounir Bouchenaki, the centre's Algerian director, says that security concerns make it impossible to visit many sites in Syria, but that earlier this year, the centre arranged an internet link between conservation experts at all six Syrian Unesco sites and relevant international agencies.

"We have to ensure that they do not feel isolated," Mr Bouchenaki explains, adding: "We are continuing those close links from here."

As these historical structures take on increasing importance in terms of military strategy, experts fear for their future.

image captionThe heritage centre is headquartered in Bahrain

The director of the antiquities and museums in Damascus has already visited the centre for discussions, and all six sites are now referred to as "endangered" on the Unesco World Heritage list.

Unesco does not have the legal framework to limit, in a physical way, damage to sites through the imposition of no-fly zones or the deployment of international forces.

But critics have singled out the want of legal process to try those guilty of crimes against heritage.

Lebanese journalist and TV presenter, Ali Al Zein, says that the punishment should fit the crime.

"At present those who damage the heritage of a country aren't held accountable," he says.

"The same punishment should be handed out for the destruction of human cultural heritage and memory as for genocide."

Irina Bukova, director-General of Unesco, has said that the organisation is determined to use its expertise and its networks to help the Syrian people preserve their exceptional cultural heritage.

"Protecting heritage is inseparable from protecting populations because heritage enshrines a people's values and identities," she says.

However Mounir Bouchenaki warns that changes of this sort will take time. "Each year we inch closer to such a framework, but it is still some way off," he believes.

image captionIn Zabid, Yemen, illegal building is encroaching on historic structures

"Presenting cultural and natural heritage so as to enlist the support of local people is of great importance now in the battle to prevent further damage."

But not all damage is caused by armed conflict. The centre's first direct intervention is in Zabid, the former capital of Yemen, home to the country's highest concentration of mosques, but where illegal building has encroached dangerously on to historical structures.

According to Kamal Bittar, who was in charge of a recent mission to the Yemeni site, this initiative should trigger interest from other organisations which have ceased support since the political unrest began more than three years ago.

"It is also a wake-up call to central, regional and local Yemeni government departments which are aware of the urgent need for intervention," he said.

As a sign of the new importance given to understanding heritage, additional disciplines are being established at universities so as to create more professionals in the field.

Bahrain is supporting the World Heritage Marine Programme in identifying potential new sites in Gulf and Arab waters, having already inscribed its own off-shore pearling beds on the list.

According to Kishore Rao, director of the Unesco World Heritage Centre, the inclusion of Saudi Arabia's Nabataean city of Al Hijr, (sister city to Jordan's Petra), and Ad Dir'iyah, the 15th century capital of the Saudi dynasty on the list shows strong commitment.

"We are processing a number of new applications from the region, in addition to the 75 that have already been designated," he says.

The centre will bring together governments and organisations in the area to monitor and report on all natural and historical sites.

It is also likely to oversee the development of common policies and lobbying for the greater protection of endangered sites on its doorstep.

More on this story

  • Syria conflict: Unesco adds ancient sites to danger list