Syria’s protection of cultural artifacts ‘only piece of good news’ amid rubble of war, says UN cultural agency

A damaged museum in Aleppo, Syria. Photo: UNESCO/Prof. Abdulkarim

5 February 2014 – The Syrian Government moved the majority of content from its 34 national museums into safe havens, a senior United Nations official today said, warning that the nearly three-year conflict has nevertheless dealt a major blow to the country’s vast and varied cultural heritage.

“The damages to museums is less important than it would have been otherwise because of this preventive action, which of course we praise and consider very, very important,” said Francesco Bandarin, Assistant Director-General for Culture at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Briefing journalists in New York, Mr. Bandarin said the preservation of the cultural artefacts is “the only piece of good news” in safeguarding the heritage of the country which is ripped apart by the civil war which since March 2011 has killed more than 100,000 people and driven 8 million from their homes, with 2 million of them seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

He acknowledged that no one from UNESCO has been able to verify that the National Directorate of Antiquities and Museums in Syria (DGAM) transported the contents nor speak of their current state or safety, but a presentation by DGAM Director Maamoun Abdel-Karim was “convincing enough.”

The presentation was part of a UNESCO organized meeting this past summer in Paris, attended also by the Joint Special Representative of the UN and the League of Arab States for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi who last week got the anti- and pro-Government sides to sit at the negotiating table for the first time.

“The situation in Syria is not only dominated by the conflict,” Mr. Bandarin said, “but also the loss of control of territory by local governments.”

The instability is “lethal” for cultural heritage opening the door to illegal excavations in archaeological sites.

“This has happened everywhere, all the sites in Syria, from the ancient Sumerian city of Mari to city of Ebla,” Mr. Bandarin noted citing two of 12 sites which are being considered for admission to the agency’s World Heritage List.

They also include the site of Apamea on the Orontes River which is “completely destroyed” by “thousands and thousands of illegal diggings.”

“A site has a value not only for the monuments that are destroyed but also for the values of the objects in the ground,” Mr. Bandarin said. “And when this is lost, the scientific value of the site is clearly, clearly compromised.”

Syria already has six sites inscribed to the World Heritage List: the ancient cities of Aleppo, Bosra and Damascus, ancient villages of northern Syria, Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din, and the site of Palmyra.

To curb the destruction, UNESCO has launched a three prong project, funded so far by 2.5 million euros from the European Union, to create a database of Syrian works; to fight illicit trafficking with support from INTERPOL, local police and customs officials; and to raise awareness of the cultural artefacts and the dangers of their trafficking among the local and international communities, as well as refugees.

In response to a journalist’s question about the premiere of a new movie focusing on the preservation of cultural heritage, ‘The Monuments Men”, Mr. Bandarin said he hopes the movie, which deals with attempts to save paintings and other cultural artefacts from destruction and looting during World War II, will bring the issue to the forefront, “Sometimes Hollywood is more powerful than all the UN put together in raising this attention.”

Also today, UNESCO announced the completion of an emergency mission to launch rehabilitation of the Islamic Arts Museum of Cairo after a blast on 24 January brought down walls of buildings housing both the Museum and the National Library at Bab el Khalq. The UN agency sent representatives to Egypt on 30 January to evaluate the damage done.

“Despite the shocking first impressions of destruction inside and outside the building, the Mission recorded that the structural stability of the building seems not to have been endangered,” the Paris-based UN agency reported.

As for the Archive Museum of the National Library at Bab el Khalq, “most of this damage can be quite easily cleaned and restored, but this will take many months of work.”


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

UNESCO chief appeals to parties in Syria to stop destruction of cultural heritage

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