This week saw the opening of a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age.” Debuting at a poignant time, the exhibition calls attention to the magnificent cultural legacy left by millennia of human occupation in this part of the world; a part which is currently under siege by the devastating effects of the ongoing Syrian Crisis. After three and a half years of conflict, archaeologists and heritage conservationists are urging the public, now more than ever, to recognize the need for the protection of Syria’s precious cultural heritage as it stands in the crossfire. A new study of high-resolution satellite images by the American Association for the Advancement of Science reports that five of Syria’s six World Heritage sites “exhibit significant damage.” Extensive destruction has been reported in the city of Aleppo, especially the Ancient City, and Bosra, Palmyra, the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, and the castles of Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din have all sustained heavy damage. Syrian archaeologists Salam Al Quntar and Ali Cheilmous have stressed the significance that such devastation has for the Syrian people. Al Quntar has poignantly written, “The cultural heritage of Syria is not a static entity belonging to the past, but a dynamic concept in which time is captured in a living historical landscape. Expression of the past is manifested in contemporary society both in tangible and intangible forms. Not only impressive ancient buildings have values for Syrians, but the entire setting of the ancient urban landscape, historical and religious buildings, suqs or bazaars, cafes and restaurants, and even the narrow warm streets.” Syria’s past is an integral part of modern life. Its destruction cannot be ignored.
The opening night of the Met’s new Assyrian exhibition offered specialists an opportunity to voice their concerns on the threats facing the archaeology of Syria and Iraq, and the public the chance to show their support. Secretary of State, John Kerry, spoke about the urgency of the matter, and the need for cooperation in protecting this shared cultural legacy. You can watch his full speech here, or read it here.
Regardless of your political views, it is undeniable that Kerry is promoting an important message, one which must serve as a call to action for everyone. I realize that this issue is a monumental one, and I can by no means do it justice in a single blog post, but I will attempt to update the blog with related news and ways to take action with organizations such as UNESCO and Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE). In the meantime, I leave you with some of my favourite quotes from the speech, quotes which could easily be applied to the antiquities of any human culture, from any period, anywhere in the world.
“[T]he fight to protect the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria isn’t just about shared values. It’s about protecting a shared legacy. And that is the story that I want to leave you with this evening.”
“We are determined instead to help Iraqis and Syrians protect and preserve their heritage in peace. That’s our common responsibility.”
“So what is really at stake here? When you walk around the exhibit and you see the limestone reliefs from Assyria or the Syro-Hittite sculptures, you get up close and personal reminders of the power of human creation. Each artifact tells a story – a human story, our story.”
 Al Quntar, Salam. 2013. Syrian Cultural Property in the Crossfire: Reality and Effectiveness of Protection Efforts. Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies 1: 349.