SAFE Volunteer Sandra Roorda observes the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with a reflection on the situation in Syria.
Amidst the public and political clamor surrounding the current conflict in Syria, and as many argue over how to prevent further civilian casualties, a wide swathe of cultural institutions and organizations from both diplomatic and NGO communities has stepped forward to warn that, in addition, the country’s rich cultural heritage is being looted and destroyed. As Bonnie Burnham, President of the World Monuments Fund states, “The evolving tragedy in Syria has a deep cultural, as well as a humanitarian, dimension.” To be sure, the conflict in Syria is destroying not only the lives of the Syrian people, but it is also stripping them of their cultural identity and their cultural heritage, resulting in a loss felt not only by the Syrian people, but also by the world at large.
World Heritage Sites in Danger
The conflict in Syria, now in its third year, has devastated the country’s cultural heritage, with UNESCO reporting that 93% of the country’s total cultural sites are currently within areas of conflict and displacement. Furthermore, of Syria’s 46 primary heritage sites, six have been categorized as World Heritage in Danger sites, with some structures already destroyed or seriously damaged by shelling or looting. Indeed, recent aerial footage also reveals several of these sites to be pockmarked with holes—the token remnants of looters excavating cultural objects and antiquities.
Damage caused by looting and vandalism at a museum in Aleppo.
UNESCO and Professor Abdulkarim
Currently listed as in danger by UNESCO are the Ancient City of Aleppo, the Ancient City of Bosra, the Ancient City of Damascus, the site of Palmyra, Cracs des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din, and the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria. Of course, countless other sites and structures that lend to Syria’s rich cultural heritage have also been damaged and are further threatened by continued fighting—the breadth of which is perhaps demonstrated by the World Monument Fund’s recent decision to list all of the cultural heritage sites within the entire country of Syria as part of its 2014 World Monuments Watch.
The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk
ICOM’s Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.
UNESCO and the World Monument Fund are hardly the only organizations—cultural or otherwise—adding or connecting Syria to an endangered list. In an event last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) officially released The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.
Held during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly and attended by members of both diplomatic and NGO communities, the event served to raise awareness surrounding the issues of preserving Syria’s cultural heritage by specifically outlining the categories and typologies of cultural artifacts and goods most vulnerable to illicit trafficking during the conflict. Indeed, the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) has reported a dramatic increase of illegal excavations of archeological sites and increased looting of museums in Syria, with the threat of illicit trafficking and trade of cultural property on the rise. As Anna Paolini, head of the Jordan office of UNESCO states, “In light of previous experiences in situations of conflict, with respect to cultural heritage, the risk of looting and illicit trafficking of Syrian cultural objects appears to be high.”
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and supported by UNESCO, ICOM’s Emergency Red List aims to help counteract illicit trafficking by not only categorizing the types of objects most at risk, but by also providing a succinct guide for museums, auction houses, art dealers, and collectors on how to facilitate the identification of potentially stolen or looted items, and which subsequent authorities to inform. The publication covers a wide spectrum of artifacts and antiquities, categorizing writing, figural sculpture, vessels, architectural elements, accessories and instruments, stamps and cylinder seals, and tessera and coins.
Joining in the announcement of the Emergency Red List, Assistant Secretary of States for Population, Refugees, and Migrations, Anne Richard, stated:
“The situation, clearly, is critical, not only for the survival of the Syrian people, but the heritage they cherish. Wherever one goes in Syria, one finds monuments from the past around every corner. Ancient religious edifices are still in use for daily observances. Historic homes provide shelter. Archaeological sites were—in better times—a place to visit, appreciate, and even have picnics. They are part of the fabric of Syrian life—a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future. Today, with the release of the Red list, we take an important step in helping Syrians preserve this unique and priceless cultural heritage. We are monitoring the situation there closely. And we are engaging internationally with national police, customs officials, ministries of culture, and other relevant entities in countries where Syrian cultural objects might transit and where these objects might find a market.”
Richard goes on to call on the international community to remain vigilant for looted and trafficked Syrian cultural objects and to refrain from purchasing or acquiring such objects.
UNESCO reports that, “Volunteer networks from local communities all over the country have mobilized themselves and come together with a common objective to protect their cultural heritage. These networks provide additional security in protecting archaeological sites from illegal excavations, and safeguarding museums from looters.
Photo via UNESCO and ICOM
Further attempts to counteract the illicit traffic and trade of Syria’s cultural heritage include the digitization of the remaining inventory and archives of cultural property in Syrian museums, in order to simplify the identification and the registration of any missing artifacts. Additional testimonies, images, and videos from the public, as well as from various national and international archaeological and heritage-based initiatives, are assisting in these digitized databases. As UNESCO states, “All this collated information will facilitate a more effective response against the illicit trafficking of cultural property out of Syria, and help potential restitution cases in the future.”
A Call to Action: Syria and the International Community
Attempts to combat the looting of Syrian antiquities and counteract their illicit trade are made difficult and further complicated for a variety of reasons, not least of which are due to the literal combat taking place on the ground.
That the continual fighting of the ongoing conflict in Syria renders site protection on the ground difficult and often thwarts attempts to protect the country’s cultural heritage brings to light what some may view as the apparent limitations of such international agreements as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
Participants at the Damascus National Museum, involved in the e-learning course, Protection of Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Times of Armed Conflict.
ICCROM and Lina Kutifan, DGAM
That being said, there are a number of efforts—both coordinated and individual, and implemented by both diplomatic and NGO communities—that are taking place to address the looting and the subsequent potential for the illicit sale of Syrian antiquities. While fighting and shelling proves an obstacle for on-the-ground site protection, effective monitoring of the situation and statuses of these sites, combined with the methodical documentation of antiquities and cultural property still accessible to archaeologists and members of the cultural heritage community, is of the utmost importance. As previously mentioned, the digitized documentation of the archival inventory of Syrian museums, for example, could be instrumental in potential restitution cases in the future.
Additionally, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), in association with the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) has partnered with the DGAM, in coordination with UNESCO, to hold several e-learning courses for Syrian cultural heritage professionals. The first of such courses, Protection of Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Times of Armed Conflict, took place at the beginning of this year at the Damascus National Museum and provided around 75 DGAM managers, directors, curators, architects, and staff—not to mention Syrian cultural heritage researchers and conservation experts—with some of the necessary knowledge and training materials to build their capacities in helping preserve the country’s cultural heritage.
The Syrian audience welcomed this show of professional solidarity from the international heritage community, the success of which prompted the next e-learning course and video conference, which took place last month. Says ICCROM of the initiative:
“In organizing the course, ICOMOS and ICCROM call on all parties associated with the situation in Syria to fulfill their obligations under international law to protect Syria’s precious cultural heritage sites and institutions. A call was repeated at the beginning of the course to abide by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and to respect museums, monuments, and historic cities.”
Further seminars and courses are envisaged as part of a long-term effort, in addition to further knowledge, experience, and advice, which may be offered during Syria’s recovery phase. Certainly, preserving Syria’s cultural heritage can serve as not only an anchor for promoting social cohesion and national unity during the recovery phase, but it may potentially aid in promoting economic stability based on tourism, which, before the conflict, accounted for 12% of Syria’s GDP and generated more than 6.5 billion dollars a year.
Participants and trainers in ICCROM’s e-learning course, via video conference.
ICCROM and Rohit Jigyasu
As one of the trainers for the initiative, Rohit Jigyasu, President of the International Scientific Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICORP) states, such endeavors could effectively become a benchmark for a “paradigm shift in how we can build capacity and promote awareness for heritage conservation using new information technology.”
Our Public Responsibility
Given the situation and the myriad of associated issues, many of us may ask ourselves, “Well, what can we do to help?” As members of the public, we too can play our part, by not only making ourselves and others aware of such issues, but also by simply refraining from buying cultural goods and antiquities from conflict zones—Syrian or otherwise. After all, supply must meet demand, and a collective decision to stop buying these antiquities may go a long way to curb theft and looting. In the end, this combination of action—raising awareness surrounding the issues of looting and illicit trafficking—combined with inaction—refusing to engage in the purchase and trade of antiquities from conflict zones—may prove essential to preserving what remains of Syria’s rich cultural heritage.
Drawing Parallels: SAFE and the National Museum of Iraq
In light of such issues, it is hard not to draw the comparison between the current crisis in Syria and the conflict in Iraq, following the collapse of the Saddam regime. While the various circumstances and the context for each situation differs, many of the issues and the challenges facing Syria’s cultural heritage and archeological sites are, in many ways, similar to those in Iraq during the 2003 US-led invasion.
Indeed, many of our SAFE readers and contributors have similarly commented on this parallel during our 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage. SAFE was borne out of the travesty surrounding the looting of the National Museum of Iraq and now, during the tenth anniversary of both the looting of the museum and the founding of this organization, it seems particularly poignant to warn of the similar dangers affecting not only Syria’s cultural heritage, but of heritage sites across the globe. The memory of what happened in Baghdad serves as a perpetual reminder, wherein circumstances of the past can hopefully manifest as lessons for the future.
Additional Information and Further Resources
The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk can be found here.
The link for UNESCO’s website, Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property in Syria, can be found here.
Updates on the situation of Syria’s cultural heritage on the ground can be found through DGAM’s website—in both Arabic and English—here.
For previous SAFE articles and information regarding the conflict in Syria and the destruction of its cultural heritage, please click here.