UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural organization, is applying lessons learned the hard way from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, hoping to stem the havoc Syria's civil war has caused the country's cultural heritage.
But the destruction has already taken a steep toll — among landmarks destroyed is the 11th-century minaret of the Umayyad Mosque, which collapsed during fighting in April between government troops and rebels.
The mosque, a UNESCO world heritage site, was the centerpiece of Aleppo's Old City, along with the medieval marketplace that burned up in an inferno sparked by clashes in September 2012.
"The humanitarian crisis is catastrophic. So is the situation at the level of cultural heritage of Syria," said Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy to Syria, who attended the gathering along with the Syrian government's director of antiquities.
"Few countries are as rich culturally, have had such a glorious past, are so important for what we are, all of us, for all the things that make, have made, human civilization," Brahimi said.
Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, said Thursday the U.N.'s cultural organization has learned from the pillaging and destruction that accompanied wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is trying to prioritize sites and encourage residents to protect them.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's antiquities chief, said the government stashed away the most valuable artifacts from museums around the country, mindful of the looting that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He said Syrians, regardless of their politics, were becoming increasingly aware of the importance of protecting their heritage.
He said 10,000 archaeological sites and 40 museums needed protection from what he called "the painful events" — a common euphemism in Damascus for 2 ½ years of bloodshed.
"The local populations are playing a vital role. Everyone understands that we need to protect our heritage," he said.
But Bokova, acknowledging the destruction plainly evident in satellite photos, said at this point appealing for people to safeguard the sites and scouring black markets for looted artifacts was the best hope for preserving Syria's history.
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