The civil war in Syria is not only killing and wounding thousands of people -- it is also damaging some of the country’s most precious cultural artifacts.
The minaret of the ancient Umayyad Mosque in the northern coastal city of Aleppo, a famous landmark and cultural treasure, has reportedly been destroyed in savage fighting between rebels and troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
SANA, the state-controlled news agency, accused rebels of blowing up the 11th-century minaret, stating that "terrorists ... placed explosive materials in the minaret and the mosque's southern door and set them off.”
However, opposition activists claim a government tank shelled it to rubble.
"The deliberate destruction of this minaret, under whose shadow [sultan of Egypt and Syria] Saladin ... and [10th-century Iraqi poet] Al-Mutanabbi rested, is a crime against human civilization," the opposition National Coalition said in a statement.
"The Assad regime has done everything it can to destroy Syria's social fabric. Today, by killing people and destroying culture, it is sowing ... bitterness in people's hearts that will be difficult to erase for a very long time.”
The mosque itself is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Last autumn, when heavy fighting damaged the mosque itself, Unesco officials beseeched the warring parties in Syria to spare the Umayyad, calling it "one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world."
BBC reported that not only were antique furnishings and sculpted colonnades ruined by fighting, looters have also made off with ancient artifacts, including a box that supposedly carries a strand of the Prophet Muhammad's hair.
The mosque itself was originally established in the year 715 AD by the Umayyad dynasty on the locale of a former Byzantine church. It suffered destruction at least twice more -- by a fire in 1159 and an invasion by the Mongols a century later -- requiring rebuilding.
The 150-foot minaret is believed to be the oldest component of the mosque, dating back to 1090.
The Umayyad Caliphate was one of the four major caliphates established following the death of Muhammad. With Damascus as their capital, the Umayyad’s created a Muslim empire that at its peak stretched from present-day Spain in the west to present-day Pakistan in the east, covering almost 6 million square miles of territory.