Random mortars fired from the countryside by rebels have damaged the grand eighth-century Omayyad mosque in Damascus, regarded as the fourth holiest place in the Muslim world.
One round struck a glowing mosaic, depicting a city of colonnaded buildings and trees, on the outer wall of the vast prayer hall, where the head of St John the Baptist is said to be buried.
Fragments of a round put holes in windows and wounded the fabric of the building.
Syria's director of antiquities and museums, Maamoun Abdulkarim, is furious and fearful. "What if mortars set fire to the wood and carpets?" he says in an interview with The Irish Times. "The destruction at the Omayyad mosque in Aleppo is a loss for all eternity. We must ask all sides not to fire into the old city [of Damascus]."
The indiscriminate firing of mortars reveals “the weakness” of rebel forces, he claims, adding it would be a tragedy for mankind if the National Museum, a rich repository of Syria’s historical treasures, is hit. The museum is closed but its garden remains open to the public.
“We have evacuated everything except large stone items from provincial museums and hidden artefacts in safe places.”
Six museum buildings have been damaged, but the antiquities department has installed steel doors and fitted alarms.
Mortars and bombs are not the only dangers the war poses to Syria’s 12,000-year-old cultural heritage. Fighters shelter in monuments, putting them at risk, while opportunistic and professional looters pillage treasures at sites.
A university professor on temporary appointment, Abdulkarim is a passionate man with a mission. "There are 10,000 sites in Syria so it is impossible to protect all of them," he notes.
The antiquities department has only 800 guards and 2,500 employees. “At least 100 sites have been damaged or pillaged. One hundred is a terrible number but a small fraction of 10,000.”
Abdulkarim says that in Dura, a third-century BC town on the ancient trade routes, “there is a mafia at work”, and 400 thieves “arrive each day” to steal treasures.
Meanwhile, fifth-millennium BC Mari in Deir al-Zor and the “Dead Cities” in Idlib are being ravaged. The Omari mosque in Deraa in the south is being excavated illegally.
“Beside the citadel in the Katura Valley, a funerary relief has been destroyed by fundamentalists. We have poor information about the citadel of fifth-century St Simon, the hermit who spent 37 years sitting on a 15m-high pillar near Aleppo. [We hear] it has been turned into a military training area and the walls are peppered with bullet holes.”
The Crusader fort of Krak des Chevaliers “has been occupied by the rebel Free Army for a year”, Abdulkarim adds.
“Our measures for preservation depend on local communities, which have successfully protected hundreds of sites. Our message is: ‘Don’t put politics above our patrimony . . . Our cultural heritage is for all.’ Local guards and functionaries [of the department] play the role of intermediaries between us and their communities.”
Individuals are also important. In Raqqa, initially occupied by the Free Syrian Army with al-Qaeda affiliates, one of Abdulkarim’s former students is in charge of antiquities: “He is accepted by both the government and opposition.”
The looting of Iraq after the 2003 US occupation is always on Abdulkarim’s mind. “We are trying to raise public consciousness so the Iraqi experience is not repeated. We may not be able to eliminate losses but we can reduce losses.”
He adds: "We don't know what the future will bring. We get no aid from the international community. Sanctions form a block between us and [foreign] archaeologists. We receive personal emails [from colleagues] saying, 'Hello'. This is how we are treated after a century of scientific co-operation with Europe and the US. We need expertise to reduce losses."
The US and Europe claim sanctions do not harm efforts to preserve Syria’s cultural heritage. But Abdulkarim says: “Employees and guards hired by foreign missions are not being paid because of sanctions. Some missions have brought cash from Beirut to pay them.”
While 90 important artefacts and 4,000 of lesser value have been returned, pillage will not stop until Syria’s neighbours crack down on smugglers and dealers. Lebanon has done the best job and Jordan is making an effort, Abdulkarim says.
“Turkey opened the door for mafias as well as [foreign] fundamentalists. Turkey robbed entire factories from Aleppo. Turkey behaves as an enemy of Syria, ” he claims.