Insurgents camping inside the 900-year-old Crac des Chevaliers Crusader medieval castle and snipers firing from atop Aleppo's Citadel illustrate the sad plight of Syria's oldest cultural heritage sites—some of them dating back to what Reuters calls the "dawn of civilization." Satellite images have revealed that 290 of these historic locations and buildings have sustained "large scale destruction and damage" in Syria's civil war, according to UNITAR, the United Nations' training and research institute. The most devastated areas include Damascus, Raqqa, Palmyra, and Aleppo, where some settlements have been around for more than 7,000 years, the UNITAR report released today notes. The 12th-century Umayyad Mosque (Great Mosque of Damascus) is one of the structures in that city that has been damaged, losing its famed minaret in April 2013.
Examining commercially available images of 18 different areas, UNITAR discovered that 189 sites were moderately or severely damaged, while another 24 have been destroyed altogether; another 77 have been "possibly destroyed" (meaning debris is visible). The damage has been caused by fighting between rebels and Bashar al-Assad's forces, as well as by Sunni Muslim militants who believe some of the sites are "heretical," Reuters notes. The images are an "alarming testimony of the ongoing damage that is happening to Syria's vast cultural heritage," the report states. "National and international efforts for the protection of these areas need to be scaled up in order to save as much as possible of this important heritage to human-kind." A dedicated website has been set up that shows which sites have been damaged. (The "world's worst Nazi" reportedly died in Syria four years ago.)