BEIRUT – A Shiite king ruled northern Syria more than a millennium ago from behind the towering walls of the citadel in Aleppo. In later centuries, Arab armies repelled medieval crusaders from the hilltop fortress, Mongol invaders damaged it and Ottomans used it as military barracks.
By 2011, the citadel had settled into what seemed a comfortable retirement as a UNESCO world heritage site and tourist attraction, illuminated at night by artistic ground lights and surrounded by the bustling cafes of Aleppo’s old city below.
But today, in the third year of a bloody civil war that has killed more than 70,000 Syrians, the hulking fortress has resumed its strategic role of earlier eras. President Bashar Assad’s forces have taken up positions in it to shell their enemies, and Syrian opposition fighters say they are desperate to capture it.
For both sides, what was true in war then is true now: Those who control the citadel have the power to alter the front lines.
Modern Syria is dotted with medieval castles and citadels, many built high upon the ruins of earlier Roman or Mesopotamian dynasties in an archaeological landscape that experts say is among the richest in the world.
But as the fortified structures gain new strategic purpose in Syria’s devastatingly modern civil war, archaeologists worry that what has withstood ancient armies and earthquakes may now fall victim to airstrikes, shelling and other forms of 21st-century warfare.
Because of limited access, archaeologists and other experts say it is close to impossible to confirm reports of damage and looting at Syria’s castles and citadels, including the famed crusader castle Crak des Chevaliers, whose south wall has been nearly destroyed in the fighting, according to Syrian rebels.
But it is certain that these and many other historical and archaeological sites “have been affected by violent fights or occupation by armed forces for military purposes,” said Veronique Dauge, chief of the Arab states unit at the World Heritage Center of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Both the rebels and the Syrian government have pledged publicly to protect the nation’s ancient structures, but they are intensely battling for control.
In the city of Aleppo, around 300 km northwest of Damascus, the citadel has proved critical over months of fierce fighting. Syrian opposition fighters say regime snipers have staked out positions in the arrow slits of the ancient fortress, rendering the hilltop impregnable and allowing the snipers to cement a front line that roughly dissects the city in half — one swath controlled by rebels, the other by proregime forces.
Near Homs, which has served as a battleground of clashing empires for more than 4,000 years in the strategic Orontes River valley, Syrian rebels say they only recently routed regime troops from the city’s heavily fortified walls of Crak des Chevaliers — one of the Middle East’s most renowned crusader castles.
In the center of Homs’ old city, the citadel has changed hands at least three times in recent months, although some fighters say they managed to hold it for only a day.
Local opposition forces say the regime has used the fortress to maintain its stranglehold on one of Syria’s most important and virulently anti-Assad cities.
“If the rebels got control of this citadel, it would mean that the direct shelling on the areas in old Homs would stop,” said Jalal Abu Soliman, a member of the Local Coordination Committees, a Syrian activist group. Such a development, he said, would allow the rebels to take full control of the city.
Opposition activists in Hama say regime forces occupying the medieval al-Madiq citadel have maintained an upper hand by using the structure to shell villages to the north that are sympathetic to the opposition and might otherwise rise up to fight.
Wars often carry eerie parallels to a region’s earlier history, but Middle East historians are fearful about what the current fight may mean for Syria’s rich historical sites.
In Aleppo, Syria’s former commercial capital and a vibrant gem of the region’s historical heritage, successive battles between forces loyal to Assad and rebels have left the Islamic old city ravaged by fire and torn down by artillery shells. Assad’s tanks blasted through the 11th-century minaret of a treasured mosque, activists say, while the city’s 14th-century souk — once a covered maze of well-preserved stone and wooden shops — has gone up in flames.
“We create these heritage sites in times of peace, and then we destroy them much faster than we built them,” said Helga Seedan, an archaeologist at the American University in Beirut.
But even amid the destruction, Aleppo’s citadel is still standing, and it remains a prize worth fighting over.
“It’s a center for more than 100 snipers,” said Majed Abdul-Nour, an alias used by a local opposition activist interviewed via Skype.
“There have been many attempts by the rebels to liberate the citadel,” he said. But the high ground and tall walls, and the bullets fired so easily through arrow slits, he said, “make the mission to liberate it too difficult for now.”
Online images that have circulated over the past year show shell damage and alleged looters digging holes around the al-Madiq citadel in Hama, Aleppo’s citadel, the Crak des Chevaliers in Homs and the Palmyra citadel in Syria’s central desert — the latter three of which are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
But while Syrian officials have acknowledged some of the destruction, they have cast the blame on “terrorist groups,” the catch-all phrase the state has assigned to its opponents, whether peaceful protesters or armed Islamist extremists. Opposition groups, in turn, attribute the damage to the regime.
In Hama, activists said government forces had transformed the third-century al-Madiq citadel, which towers over green farmland, into a military garrison that the troops use to batter Sunni villages nearby.
“Inside the citadel there are heavy and midrange weapons,” said Ahmed Radoun, a local activist. But the rebels have never tried to storm it because displaced residents are believed to have also sought refuge behind its powerful walls, he added.
Even the regions that are contested today echo the battles of a bygone era. The Orontes River valley, which forms part of the border with Lebanon, has been a strategic passage for so long that Egypt’s pharaohs fought over it, later inscribing the scenes of battle across the walls of their temples.
“All the kingdoms of settled Syria wanted to control the famous route that is known as the Homs Gap between the coast and the Orontes valley,” said Helen Sader, an archaeologist at the American University in Beirut. “That is why the Crusaders built the Crak des Chevaliers on this route to protect it.”
And that is why Syrian regime forces and opposition fighters say they are fighting hard for it today. Several months ago, the rebels announced they overran the Crak des Chevaliers’ sophisticated walls and turrets, which they say the regime had used to shell the neighborhoods below.
“The regime knows that importance of this castle,” said Abu Hamza al-Homsi, a local activist. “These stones are like shields for any fighter inside.”
But the fortress has continued to weather government strikes, according to activists. Another fighter, who gave his name as Qais al-Hussni, said that almost the entire southern wall of the fortress has been destroyed.
As the weaponry and rules of modern warfare evolve so, too, may the towering symbols of Syria’s heritage, until they fade into the so-called tells — cone-shaped mounds of disintegrated ruins — on which they were built, for a future generation of experts, looters and warmongers to comb through.
“It’s a crossroad of cultures. It’s a crossroad of armies. It’s a crossroad of trade,” Sader of the American University said.
“This is the importance of Syria. And this is what made it so attractive to so many powers — and it still is. We just hope that this will end very soon, before they destroy everything,” she said.