Survivor of the crusades, the fortress of Saladin, in Latakia, threatens to collapse

Survivor of the crusades, the fortress of Saladin, in Latakia, threatens to collapse

The medieval fortified site, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was severely damaged by the February 6 earthquake. In a Syria still divided by civil war, many historic sites need urgent help.

The proud ramparts of the citadel have survived Ayyubid trebuchets and assaults Mamluks. They now look pale. More than a month later the February 6 earthquakethe Syrian fortress of Saladin, located in the province of Latakiain the northwest of the country, is in decline, weakened by the natural disaster that damaged many other historic sites.

From a nearby hill, Zouhair Hassoun observes with concern the towers of this fortress built in the 10the century, in Byzantine times. “All the towers of the fortress are in danger, one of them even collapsed after the earthquake”, says the guardian of the monument. Spared by the civil war that has ravaged the country since 2011, Saladin Fortress remained open to visitors until the earthquake which killed nearly 46,000 people in Turkey and at least 6,000 in Syria.

“There will inevitably be landslides”

As he passes under three cracked arches, Zouhair Hassoun walks cautiously, and points to the facade of the huge fortress inscribed in the Unesco World Heritage in 2006, before joining its list of World Heritage in Danger in 2023. “Each block of stone weighs at least a ton, he points out. Any part of the fortress that rolls into the valley can never be salvaged.And, he predicted, “there will inevitably be landslides in the event of heavy rain or a new tremor, it’s a matter of time».

“All the towers of the fortress are in danger, one of them even collapsed after the earthquake”, Zouhair Hassoun, one of the guardians of Saladin’s fortress, is moved. Louai Beshara, AFP

The earthquake damaged 40 archaeological and historical sites across Syria, according to the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). Walls, ceilings or even towers of historic castles now have cracks or have partially or even completely collapsed, according to the DGAM, which indicates that churches, mosques and museums – several of which date from the Middle Ages – have also affected by the earthquake.

At the national museum in Damascus, the director of the DGAM Nazir Awad circles on a map the six provinces most affected by the earthquake, including that of Latakia. “We have counted more than forty damaged sites”he says, adding that the citadel of Aleppo and its Old Town are the most affected by the earthquake. Some damage requires “an emergency intervention so that these priceless treasures are not lost”he adds.

Threat to classified sites

According to Nazir Awad, a UNESCO delegation visited Aleppo shortly after the earthquake to inspect the damage to its citadel and to its Old Town, classified in 2018 by Unesco, in its list of world heritage in danger. The city’s madrassas, Muslim religious schools, were also reviewed. The earthquake of February 6 notably damaged parts of the Ottoman mill and the fortifications in the northeast of the citadel of Aleppo. Large parts of the lighthouse dome of the Ayyubid Mosque also collapsed. “We urgently need international seismic experts to assess the situationinsists Nazir Awad. The sites will not last long if we do not intervene immediately.”

In areas beyond the control of government forces, sites in Idleb province and northern Aleppo suffered “serious damage”, he says, based on the testimony of local interlocutors. Among these sites is the Byzantine church of Saint Simeon the Stylite, in the northwest of the province of Aleppo. The western part of this church – also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – was damaged and the vault of its eastern facade destroyed, as were certain columns and decorations, according to Syrian archaeologist Fayez Qawsara.

Near the Turkish border, in Harem, one of the towns among the hardest hit by the earthquake in Syria, a century-old citadel has suffered serious damage: a few walls and arcades of shops adjoining it are no more than ruins. “For a building to collapse is normal. But for a citadel that has withstood assaults for hundreds of years, it is strange and sad.”regrets Firas Mansour, teacher at Harem and passionate about ancient architecture.

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