One of the many casualties of Syria's civil war is the country's architectural heritage. We've told you about damage to the historic 11th century Umayyad mosque and the ancient city of Palmyra. Now comes a story from The Associated Press about damage to the Crac des Chevaliers, a castle that held off a siege by the Muslim warrior Saladin during the Crusades.
The castle, like the two other sites, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It lies about 25 miles from Homs, a flashpoint city in the 3-year-old conflict between Syria's rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
Two years ago, Assad's forces began a blockade of the Sunni-dominated village of Hosn, which they believed was aiding the rebels. The rebels, the government said, were linked to al-Qaida and were targeting neighboring Christian villages. Government troops began bombarding Hosn, prompting the village's 9,000 people to take refuge inside the nearby Crac des Chevaliers. Those inside the citadel included rebel fighters who lobbed mortars outside its walls at the nearby villages.
The AP reports that:
"Those who found shelter inside the citadel ate little food they had taken with them, or sneaked out at night to search for anything that can be cooked, including cats and dogs. For seven months, they slept in the tiny church inside a walled compound, or in huge and dark stone halls used as horse stables by the Crusaders in the 12th century.
"Mattresses and blankets, together with clothes, shoes and gas cookers lay scattered on damp stone and soil floors inside the castle when AP journalists recently visited it. Pages from a copy of the Quran fluttered in the breeze inside the church, which was turned into a mosque when Ottomans captured the fortress in the 13th century.
"The villagers apparently hoped that castle's thick walls and its historic importance would prevent the Syrian army from further shelling. It didn't.
"In March, during a massive government offensive against opposition strongholds on the border with Lebanon, Syrian jets unleashed a series of airstrikes. Heavy cannon fire pummeled the castle walls, with shells causing some ancient stone structures to crumble. Some of the shells ricocheted against the mighty stone structures, leaving deep marks on the historic citadel."
About 300 rebels were killed in the government offensive, the AP reported.
In an interview on NPR's Morning Edition in February, UNESCO's assistant director-general for culture, Francesco Bandarin, said that historic sites in Syria are "essentially destroyed from a scientific point of view."
"We have a very serious situation there," he said. "One of the worst I've seen."
Bandarin added: "We think that heritage is part of human life. It's not a separate thing. Culture is part of human identity. Now if you take away heritage and identity to people, they're really deprived of a very fundamental part of their humanity."