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Syrians risk lives in battle to protect nation's ancient sites

A damaged ceiling is pictured in Bab Antakya district of Aleppo, Syria, on October 2, 2012. Aleppo's Old City is one of several World Heritage Sites in Syria that are considered at risk.Zain Karam / Reuters

Editor's note: This story includesa correction.

Updated at 9:15 a.m. ET: Even as civil war tears the nation apart, it seems Syrians can agree about one thing: The need to protect the country’s antiquities and World Heritage Sites that represent thousands of years of human history.

Rebel fighters and ordinary citizens are risking their lives to document the damage being done to Syria’s ancient treasures and museums, according to Western monitors.

Now Bashar Assad's regime has joined in. Maamoun Abdul-Karim, director general of antiquities and museums, has launched a campaign, called "MySyria," (in Arabic) asking communities to help protect the nation’s cultural heritage from the civil strife.

All six World Heritage Sites have now suffered damage as the conflict widens, according to Emma Cunliffe, a volunteer monitor for the non-profit Global Heritage Fund.

One of oldest cities

Destruction includes heavy looting of temples and tombs in the trade city of Palmyra and a devastating fire in the medieval souk in Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in human history.

World heritage body UNESCO has led the outpouring of international concern. Aleppo dates back to the 10th century B.C. and the present city is deemed to have "Outstanding Universal Value," by UNESCO.

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar Assad in the ancient city of Palmyra on November 18, 2011.Reuters, file

"Pictures and video evidence gathered by people on the ground shows the extent of the damage and prove that none of these sites are now safe from the conflict," said Cunliffe, a postgraduate student at Britain's Durham University.

'Emergency red list' targets Syria's looted treasures

Looting, which led to the theft of many of Iraq's national treasures during the conflict that deposed Saddam Hussein, is also a risk in Syria.

"Large gangs of men turned up at Iraqi sites, totally overwhelming the protection, and looted on a vast scale. If that starts to happen in Syria there will be problems because there's little that can be done about it,” Cunliffe said.

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She said each side in the conflict blamed the other for damage to ancient buildings, but it was not easy to verify the claims.

Cunliffe said many people in Syria made films showing the damage being done to ancient sites.

She said that one man “who uploaded most of the videos of the damage to the citadel of Qal'at al-Madiq in January to April stopped uploading when the government took the citadel/village in April. I have assumed the worst.”

A look back at the violence that has overtaken the countryOsman Orsal / Reuters

New 'intelligence' body set to fight illicit trade in world's priceless treasures

Abdul-Karim hopes to encourage Syrians to prevent the war from causing permanent damage.

“The war in Syria has hit ... all aspects of life, including antiquities considered the common heritage of all Syrians, regardless of their thoughts or political alliances, whether loyalists or opposition,” Abdul-Karim told news website Al Akhbar following the campaign's launch.

He said there was also evidence of antiquities being smuggled out of the country.

'A loss to human civilization'

Dan Thompson, director of global projects at the Global Heritage Fund, said that there was little that could be done until the fighting stopped.

“The continuing damage and destruction of World Heritage Sites and other national antiquities in Syria during the present conflict is not only a loss to human civilization, but also greatly reduces the socio-economic potential these sites offer to local communities and the country as a whole,” he said in a statement.

"At present, unfortunately, the most anyone can do is to closely monitor and publicize the devastation … and plead for both sides to respect the country’s cultural heritage, as UNESCO has done."

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