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“Heritage in Peril: Iraq and Syria” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 22)

September 23, 2014

Last night I was invited to attend an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Heritage in Peril: Iraq and Syria” where I took a seat in front of the Temple of Dendur amongst an audience of journalists, professors and diplomats and listened to a number of speakers outline plans for doing something to save historic and cultural sites in Iraq and Syria.

First to speak was Michael Danti, co-director of the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) Syrian Heritage Initiative. The initiative seeks to improve monitoring of heritage destruction and pursue mitigation wherever possible. ASOR and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have done some excellent work on this, including commissioning satellite photographs of threatened sites.

Aleppo Citadel

Damage to the Aleppo Citadel. Photo from AAAS.

Such photos revealed, for example, that in the summer of 2014 rebels assaulted the Aleppo citadel using shaft mines, Battle of the Crater style. The explosions completely destroyed several historic buildings.

According to Danti, most destruction in Syria has either been a side effect of combat or caused by for-profit looting. Destruction of heritage sites for ideological reasons has been primarily carried out by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in a campaign Danti called “unparalleled since the end of the Second World War.” ISIS has proudly published at least 50% of their site destructions themselves. That their intention is clearly political and sectarian is demonstrated by the statistics Danti provided: 54% of sites destroyed by ISIS are Shia, 14% are Sufi, 11% Yezidi, 9% Christian and 4% ancient.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke next, forcefully stating that we are “in the midst of one of the most tragic and one of the most outrageous assaults on our shared heritage that perhaps any of us have seen in a lifetime” and “no one group has done more to put our shared cultural heritage in the gun sights than ISIL.”

ISIL is not only beheading individuals; it is tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations. It has no respect for life. It has no respect for religion. And it has no respect for culture, which for millions is actually the foundation of life. Far from hiding their destruction of churches and mosques, they broadcast these, purposefully and with pride, for all the world to see their act of depravity and for all of us to be intimidated and to perhaps back off from our values. For the proud people of Iraq and Syria – ancient civilizations, civilizations of great beauty, great accomplishment, of extraordinary history and intellectual achievement – the destruction of their heritage is a purposeful final insult, and another example of ISIL’s implacable evil. ISIL is stealing lives, yes, but it’s also stealing the soul of millions.


Photo: U.S. State Department

ISIS, he said, wants “to rob future generations of any connection to this past.” “The looting of Apamea and Dura Europos, the devastation caused by fighting in the ancient UNESCO heritage city of Aleppo, the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah – these appalling acts aren’t just a tragedy for the Syrian and the Iraqi people. These acts of vandalism are a tragedy for all civilized people, and the civilized world must take a stand.”

For Kerry, taking a stand at the State Department means funding efforts by ASOR to document the destruction of heritage sites in both Iraq and Syria, training Iraqi conservation experts, and working with AAAS to continue taking satellite photographs of destroyed sites.

Kerry was followed by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO. It is a good thing that the State Department is funding conservation efforts independently, because the United States stopped funding 22% of UNESCO’s budget three years ago after the organization admitted Palestine as a full member state. Bokova outlined UNESCO’s efforts to, as she put it, “save the past of Syria and Iraq”: mitigate the risk to heritage objects by funding efforts at emergency safeguarding and working for increased vigilance in potential markets for antiquities. She also expressed hope that those who intentionally destroy historic sites will someday be prosecuted.

Bonnie Burnham of the World Monuments Fund proposed an even more radical step: incorporating heritage protection training into American efforts to train Syrian rebels and Iraqi military personnel, modeled after the famous “Monuments Men” from World War 2.

Damage to the Umayyad period Grand Mosque of Aleppo. Source.

Damage to the Umayyad period Grand Mosque of Aleppo. Source.

I found this last idea quite interesting because it pointed towards a real problem with many efforts to conserve cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria: They can work with the Iraqi government, but that government does not control much of Iraq. They can work to take pictures from space, seize artifacts smuggled out of the country, and keep track of what is being destroyed. But they can’t do anything on the ground. Could efforts be made to work with the powers that be on the ground, such as the Kurdistan Regional Government, the YPG or the Free Syrian Army?

What I took away from last night is that there is an encouraging level of attention being paid to the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria, and a lot of resources being directed towards doing what can be done. Unfortunately, that is the key clause – what can be done. Because sometimes what can be done is not a whole lot.

Ultimately, the only way to stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage is to stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria.

In Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and elsewhere many ancient buildings have been destroyed in the crossfire between armed factions. I am a person who values heritage, but if I were a combatant fighting in Syria’s civil war and a tank was shooting at me, I’d probably dive behind whatever provided cover without taking too long to consider if it was the wall of a modern building or a medieval one. If I were in a tank and someone hiding in that building was trying to kill me, I might blow it away too rather than die a horrific death trapped inside a burning tank penetrated by a shaped-charge armor-piercing missile. Sometimes it’s not a matter of guarding or not guarding heritage or training people to protect it.  It’s a matter of primal survival instinct.

Looting can likewise be a survival instinct, if it is driven by poverty and desperation. Targeting buyers and auction houses helps, but they can’t get everyone who buys items. As for the intentional destruction of sites, only the groups in power on the ground can stop them.

Peace is what Iraq and Syria need, not only for their heritage but for their people.

Unfortunately all I have seen seems to indicate that peace is a long way off.

PS – I’d really like to take this opportunity to thank whoever put me on the Met’s invitation list for this event. Thank you for your willingness to support non-traditional media as we pursue the issue of heritage preservation.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2014 7:57 PM

    Hi, just blogged drawing on your report here, thanks for letting those of us who were not there know Burnham raised this idea. It is striking that none of the reports, or even facebook comments by other attendees, got to the issue of what else needs to be done.

  2. Brian Daniels permalink
    September 28, 2014 6:18 PM

    Thanks for the full report. Just a note of clarification that may have not been clear at the event: the American Association for the Advancement of Science project is a collaboration of the Smithsonian Institution, Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and U.S. Institute of Peace. In addition to geospatial analysis, this initiative supports and trains heritage professionals and activists inside Syria who are based in locations outside of the control of the Assad regime. This is a different project from the ASOR project, and the two are not currently affiliated in any way.


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