PALMYRA -- Syria was once an archaeologist's paradise, home to some of the oldest and best-preserved jewels of ancient civilisations. But the conflict that erupted on March 15, 2011, has seen the worst destruction of heritage in generations.
Archaeological sites were damaged, museums were looted, old city centres were levelled and religious heritage was desecrated.
Standing in the Palmyra museum he ran for 20 years, Khalil al-Hariri remembers the trauma of having to flee the desert city and its treasures as they fell into the hands of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).
He described the day he returned to Palmyra and saw the broken antiquities and the museum in shambles as "the most difficult day of my life".
"They broke and smashed all the faces of statues that remained in the museum and which we could not save," he said.
Palmyra became a stage for public executions and other gruesome crimes, some of which were pictured and distributed in ISIS propaganda.
The headless body of chief archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad also was displayed there by ISIS henchmen who had tortured him to get him to reveal where the site's artefacts had been transferred.
Bent on their enterprise of cultural genocide, the extremists blew up Palmyra's Baal Shamin shrine. They destroyed the Temple of Bel and the Arch of Triumph, looted what they could from the museum and defaced statues and sarcophagi.
The sacking of the ancient city drew comparisons with the destruction by Afghanistan's Taliban of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.
The Taliban demolished the two statues on the orders of then-leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Carved into a cliff in the 4th and 5th centuries, the two were once the tallest standing Buddhas in the world.
'Complete, utter destruction'
The war did not spare a single one of the country's regions.
"In two words, it's a cultural apocalypse," said Justin Marozzi, an author and historian who has written extensively on the region and its heritage.
"Over the past two millennia of Syrian history, nothing worse has happened than what did during the war," said Syria's former antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdel Karim. "Complete and utter destruction."
"We're not talking just about an earthquake in some place or a fire in another -- or even war in one city -- but destruction across the whole of Syria," he said.
Before the war, the northern city of Aleppo -- one of the world's longest continuously inhabited -- boasted markets, mosques, caravanserais and public baths. But the brutal siege imposed on opposition fighters left it disfigured.
The Syrian regime, which from 2015 benefitted from Russia's military might, relied heavily on air power to claw back the territory.
"I can't forget the day the minaret of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo fell, or the day the fire ripped through the city's ancient markets," Abdel Karim said.
"Around 10% of Syria's antiquities were damaged, and that's high for a country with so many relics and historical sites," he said.
A report published last year by the Gerda Henkel Foundation and the Syrian Society for the Protection of Antiquities said more than 40,000 artefacts had been looted from museums and archeological sites since the start of the war.
'Wound for all humanity'
Syria has six sites on the UNESCO elite list of world heritage, and all of them sustained some level of damage in the war.
Besides Palmyra and Aleppo, the ancient cities of Damascus and Bosra also suffered. The Krak des Chevaliers crusader castle was caught in the fighting, as were a group of old villages near the Turkish border known as "the dead cities".
Other major heritage landmarks sustained severe destruction, such as the site of Apamea, an ancient Roman-era city on the Orontes river known for a colonnade that ran even longer than Palmyra's.
At its peak, Palmyra was a symbol of a pluralistic civilisation, a commercial hub on the Silk Road that was a cultural crossroads. Its architecture was a blend of influences from ancient Rome and Greece, Persia and Central Asia.
What was destroyed during the war in Palmyra, and by extension in the whole of Syria, is evidence of a multicultural past, a certain ideal of civilisation.
"All of us should care about the destruction of Syria's heritage because, as well as being Syrian and Arab, these ancient sites and cities and monuments form part of our common cultural patrimony," Marozzi said.
"Places like Palmyra have a universal significance and value. They are part of our world civilisation, they are milestones in our history as humans and so anything that damages them is a wound for all humanity."