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What Does Art Have To Do With The Syrian War?

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On September 25, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) hosted the launching of the 'Emergency Red List of Syrian Antiquities' at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Red Lists classify the endangered categories of archaeological objects or works of art in the most vulnerable areas of the world, in order to prevent them from being sold or illegally exported.

The Syrian Red List contains objects covering the most important periods of Syrian history: Prehistory and Ancient history, Islamic era and Middle Ages as well as Ottoman period. With the help of the Emergency Red List of Syrian Antiquties there is hope to prevent Syria's archaeological history from being looted and sold on the black market. Mohammed Ghanem of the Syrian American Council told attendees at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that, "llicit Syrian cultural goods that go back thousands of years were seized in Lebanon and Jordan. Syria's cultural heritage is in great danger and has already suffered irreparable damage. It's not human beings only who are suffering in Syria. Our history is being victimized, too."

Damage To The Soul

Syria is often referred to as the "Cradle of Civilization." Emma Cunliffe, a PhD researcher at Durham University (UK), published a report for the Global Heritage Fund, in what was the first detailed account of the conditions of archaeological sites in Syria. The report was entitled "Damage to the Soul: Syria's Cultural Heritage in Conflict." The report documents the damages sustained by ancient sites, arranged according to the causes of destruction, which include shelling, their usage as military positions, and thousands of incidents of merciless looting.

The report explains that army occupation of archaeological sites, which are then converted into military positions, is exceedingly destructive. Armies usually have no qualms about deploying their vehicles in these sites, causing them major damage. In addition, soldiers conduct "illegal" excavations and looting in search of artifacts that they can sell in the antiquities black market, eliminating any hopes of restoring sites post-conflict. The Free Syrian Army has said in several interviews that they have traded some of Syria's damaged antiquities for weapons. They felt this trade was their only option to fund the purchase of medicines and weapons, since other international help had not shown up in a meaningful way.

palmyra syria
A panoramic view of Palmyra in Syria, shortly after sunrise
Photo: Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 User: Zeledi (2005)

Three World Heritage Sites Damaged By Bombardment

The damage to the sites was not caused only by army occupation. Destruction has also been caused by shelling and bombing. According to Alakhbar English, "three World Heritage Sites are on the Emergency Red List that have been damaged by bombardment, destroying the original fabric of Byzantine-era buildings in the villages of al-Bara, Deir Sunbel, and An Larose situated in northern Syria." One of the damaged sites is the Monastery of Sednaya, one of the oldest continuously used Christian monasteries in the world, which dates back to 574 AD. Although Assad would like to have people think these sites were destroyed by terrorists, it is evident that the Syrian Regime is the only actor in the Syrian War that has planes dropping bombs or large artillery weapons.

The humanitarian crisis is certainly of the utmost priority in Syria, with 7 million Syrians in-country currently needing immediate humanitarian support according to UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarion Affairs (UNOCHA). However, preserving the rich history in antiquities is more than just an "art project."

Preserving the rich history in Syrian antiquities is more than just an art project.

As the Syrian transitional government begins the restoration plan for Syria and security has started to return, the one given that the new government should be able to count on is the return of tourism to boost revenue for the Country. The Assad government systematically devastated many World Heritage Sites within Syria including Damascus and Aleppo, so the hope of tourism as an economic savior is seriously diluted. But ... all is certainly not lost. Art lovers and archaeologists from around the world will be ready and waiting to help Syria restore their heritage and tourism will follow. Who wouldn't want to know what the "Cradle of Civilization" is all about?

Preparing To Help Rebuild Syria

If you have an interest in helping rebuild Syria through a donation or an internship project after Syria has transitioned and stabilized, you can make a donation or propose your plan to the Free-Syria-Foundation.org which is a US based foundation.

Kimberly Jones is a global nomad who writes about international issues, however, she has a special interest in Middle East and North Africa affairs. Read more stories by Kimberly Jones.

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