The first step to safeguarding Syria’s cultural heritage is to be informed about the situation and its realities, however brutal they may be. As Mr. Sahner so eloquently writes, “attacks against Syria’s cultural heritage are also attacks against its people,” therefore it is imperative that the sites and monuments of this unique region are preserved for the future. I will strive to continuously update this post with relevant links to articles, videos, audio recordings, etc. related to both the devastating effects of the destruction on Syria’s archaeological heritage, as well as success stories from the field. With photographs of collapsed buildings and smashed statues making regular appearances in the media, it is easy to believe that the situation is hopeless. But not all reports are bleak. Around the world, people are fighting to save the heritage of a country that was at the heart of the ancient world and has been a cultural crossroads for millennia; in short, a place worth fighting for.
‘Syria’s ‘Blood Diamonds”: A nation’s war on culture’
Christian C. Sahner, The Wall Street Journal
“While the wanton destruction of Syria’s historical patrimony—from Roman temples to Byzantine churches, Umayyad mosques to Crusader castles and Ottoman palaces—has received a lot of attention, the real purpose behind that destruction hasn’t always been clear. These aren’t necessarily isolated acts of vandalism or profiteering. They are an intrinsic part of the battle in Syria over identity, values and history that has claimed nearly 200,000 lives over the past three years. The nation’s heritage has been used as a weapon to finance bloodshed, to settle sectarian scores and to erase entire chapters of the country’s past in the expectation of radically reshaping its future.”
“The destruction of historical patrimony in Syria is a metaphor for the brutality of the civil war as a whole. The loss of temples, churches, mosques and museums is a consequence of a conflict that devalues human life and heritage at a fundamental level. We see this clearly in the constantly rising body count, the oceans of refugees who churn on Syria’s borders, and the use of weapons that maim and degrade. But attacks against Syria’s cultural heritage are also attacks against its people. Whether it targets Sunnis, Shiites, Christians or other groups, the destruction seeks to erase entire peoples from this diverse land by denying them a connection to their past. By destroying history, Syria’s warring factions risk destroying the future of their country.”
‘How Syria’s ancient treasures are being smashed’
Diana Darke, BBC News Writer on the Middle East, and Zahed Taj-Eddin, Syrian sculptor and archaeologist
“While Iraq benefited from a UN resolution banning trade in its antiquities after the US invasion of 2003, Syria has been given no such protection. Unesco can only function inside Syria with the permission of the Syrian regime – a permission which has not been forthcoming. Groups of young Syrian academics, archaeologists and volunteers such as the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) are taking matters into their own hands. They are documenting the damage and protecting vulnerable sites wherever possible building physical barriers to shield them from shell damage and vandalism.”
‘Looting Antiquities A Fundamental Part of ISIS Revenue Stream’ – Audio Recording
ISIS is looting, destroying and illicitly trafficking antiquities out of Iraq and Syria. Rachel Martin talks with Michael Danti, a professor of archaeology at Boston University.
‘Conflict and Cultural Heritage in Syria’
President of the World Monuments Fund, Bonnie Burnham, discusses the importance of cultural heritage preservation and the crises faced when this heritage is lost.
“At World Monuments Fund we say that cultural heritage is the DNA of civilization. It is the bridge of traditions, objects, and structures that links us to our history. Heritage provides the precedents that shape our world, gives places their meaning, and shows us the way ahead through references to the past. Cultural heritage shapes the environment, contributes to moral and economic well-being, and is one of the fundamental cornerstones of a peaceful and prosperous society. The values of our heritage are well recognized and universally esteemed — hence the very notion of World Heritage, recognizing places of outstanding universal value and their relevance to all of society, as a common legacy.”
‘The Impact of War on Syria’s Archaeological Sites and Damage Prevention Efforts’
Prof. Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Director-General of the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) presents the DGAM’s vision during this crisis using five main goals: raising awareness, the cohesiveness of the staff, professionalism, damage prevention and control, and openness to the international dimension.
“Causing damage to the heritage of any country is harmful to the spirit and identity of its people. Unfortunately, Syria is lamenting its people and history today, and its antiquities are entrusted to us in order to protect a civilization worthy of life and respect, without which the world will unquestionably grow gloomier.”
“In spite of the bad circumstances experienced by Syria, we are not going to give up, and our participation today comes because of our faith in our ability as Syrians who love Syria as well as its great history to save our culture.”
‘Imagery of Archaeological Site Looting’
Satellite images presented by the United States of America’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs showing the scale of destruction inflicted on archaeological sites in Syria, including Dura Europos, Mari, and Tell Sheikh Hamad.
‘Archaeologists Train “Monuments Men” to Save Syria’s Past’
“In the midst of a war that has killed more than 190,000 people so far, millennia-old ruins and dusty museums may not seem like a priority. But archaeologists say that preserving Syria’s past is important if the country is to recover someday from the ravages of civil war. Cultural tourism was a mainstay of the Syrian economy before 2011, says John Russell, a State Department consultant who helps countries protect their archaeological treasures. “It’s important that we preserve as much as possible of this economic asset for Syrians in the future.”
“Some of those sites are symbols of the country’s diverse, tolerant past. Before its recent destruction, Dura-Europos was a good example,” says archaeologist [Simon] James. ‘Dura seems to have been a multicultural, multireligious, tolerant kind of place. Christians, Jews, and what we would call pagans lived side by side. The Roman soldiers looked down from the city’s walls on a synagogue and a Christian house church.’”
Website of the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology
APSA is an association comprised mainly of volunteers who seek to document the damage being done to Syria’s archaeological heritage and alert international authorities and members of the scientific community. Their photographs provide an inside perspective and are therefore used widely by the media; They will also make your soul ache for the cultural legacies being lost.
Website of ‘Heritage for Peace’
“We are an international group of heritage workers who believe that cultural heritage is a common ground for dialogue and a tool to build peace. Founded in February 2013, Heritage for Peace’s mission is to support heritage workers as they work to protect their collections, monuments and archaeological sites during armed conflict. We are an NGO based in Girona, Spain.”
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‘Cultural heritage and violence in the Middle East’
Fiona Rose-Greenland, associate research director at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago, and Fatma Müge Göçek, professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan, explain why we should care about the destruction of artifacts, and how cultural violence expedites the destruction of human communities themselves.
“When cultural violence is allowed to flourish the process of re-building human communities is difficult if not impossible.”
“The destruction of human communities is incomplete without cultural violence. This was the conclusion of lawyer and human rights advocate Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-born jurist who coined the term “genocide” and fought successfully for its recognition by international legal bodies as a crime… Among the “essential foundations” of the life of human societies, Lemkin argued, were cultural sites, objects, and practices.”
‘Antiquities Lost, Casualties of War’
‘”This region has been the center of the world for every great empire recorded in human history,” said Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. “We are talking about successive generations of history all in one place, all being destroyed at once.”’
“The Islamic State and other extremists are motivated by the idea of punishing “shirk,” or idolatry. As a result, they have smashed Shia and Sufi sites, statues of poets, Mesopotamian relics from Assyria and Babylonia, and Sunni shrines that are outside the bounds of their narrow beliefs. The destruction is also useful propaganda, proving their power, advertising their ideology and attracting international attention.”
‘If great architecture belongs to humanity, do we have a responsibility to save it in wartimes?
“Nearly 200,000 people have already perished in Syria’s civil war. Estimates of deaths from the 2003 Iraq invasion vary from several hundred thousand to over a million, depending on which source you cite. In the midst of almost unimaginable blood and suffering, is it wrong to care about the walls of Uruk?”
“Why did the Taliban dynamite the Bamiyan buddhas? Like all despots, Mullah Omar and his men made the past into a guarantor of the future. The giant statues represented an alternative system of thought. By blasting away the ancient sculptures, the Taliban proclaimed, ‘there are no choices here – and there never have been.'”
“The fight for our collective heritage necessarily involves a struggle for peace and social justice, for it’s only when people feel a stake in the world around them that they can appreciate the achievements of the ancients as part of their lives.”