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Inside the UNESCO conference to save Syria’s heritage

10 June 2016

A photo of a desert landscape: a few forlorn stone slabs rise from the red earth. It is hard to believe that these remains were once classified as ‘monumental stairs’. It is even more difficult to imagine that someone would be willing to risk their lives protecting these tragic bits and pieces.

At the international expert meeting for the emergency safeguarding of Syria’s cultural heritage, which took place in Berlin from 2–4 June, government officials, archaeologists, museum staff, architects and other specialists from all over the world (many from Syria) convened to discuss what could be done to preserve the country’s threatened material history. Over the course of the conference, two things became apparent: firstly, the extraordinary bravery of those working to protect buildings in the midst of a gruelling war; secondly – and going hand in hand with this bravery – a daunting sense of the fragility of Syria’s heritage.

Stories of lethal gambles abound. One museum director told me how he bargained directly with extremist militias in order to gain access to heritage sites. Considering what had happened to Khaled al-Asaad, things could have ended very differently. I also heard how in Palmyra in May 2015, just three hours before ISIS arrived, museum staff were still in a frenzy packing as many sculptures and other artefacts as possible to take to Damascus. (Many others were already there, having been moved out of town in advance of the occupation). Two museum employees were shot at as they were trying to scramble out of the area. In April 2016, after Palmyra’s liberation from ISIS, a UNESCO mission went in to inspect the local archaeological sites despite the security level being at its highest.

After Palmyra’s recapture in March, there was a collective sigh of relief all over the world that the overall damage to was relatively moderate. But testimonials from the specialists at the conference suggest that it is too early to cheer.

As many of the speakers pointed out, other sites within Syria are still exposed to a variety of threats, from the terrible devastations wrought by ISIS, to clandestine and even trite actions by other groups or individuals. Across the country, robbers have been digging deep pits to get to previously unexcavated objects, so as to smuggle them across the border to a highly profitable market. Fresh excavations have been discovered at archaeological sites including Ebla and Palmyra, and we may never know what has been taken out, since many of these objects have not been catalogued.

Many archaeological sites, with their towers, fortifications and geographically advantageous locations, are also strategic sites. Thus, they easily become epicentres of war and destruction. The damage to the Church of St Simeon is a case in point, and in Berlin we were shown photos of sandbags covering ancient entryways and statues used for target practice (not all of which can be publicly identified for security reasons).

Sites that lie outside of today’s warzones are not necessarily out of danger. Prolonged fighting has rendered temple structures and museum roofs (including that of Palmyra’s museum) dangerously unstable: corrosion could finish the job. The construction and reconstruction of modern buildings has also had an impact: antique building fragments have been reused as building blocks in cities such as Aleppo, and entire historical areas risk being flattened by bulldozers as people attempt to rebuild. Basically, territories need to be reclaimed twice: first in warfare, then as no-construction areas so that archaeologists can examine them. Yet in many cases it is already too late for that.

A serious dilemma for all those involved is the justification of putting any effort into a complex salvage operation when so many people are suffering. People before stones, is the commonly held view. But sometimes they are one and the same. ‘Without my cultural heritage’, says architect and author Marwa al-Sabouni, ‘I am nothing.’ Many of those at the conference, not least Syria’s own Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, discussed plans to involve and educate local communities, who can play a crucial role in appreciating and protecting their own heritage.

Coming up with a coordinated strategy at this conference was always going to be a challenge considering the brutality of the conflict, in which so many parties are involved and whose front lines are shifting every few hours. The conference was something of a feat in itself, since it brought together people from across the political spectrum. Attendees were therefore requested by the conference’s moderators to refrain from any political debate, and instead to concentrate on finding practical solutions: smartphone apps that document damage; programmes in refugee camps to train craftspeople for reconstruction projects; three-dimensional modelling software that can document how pieces of blown-up monuments have fallen; travel routes to get essential supplies into hazardous areas.

In the safety and comfort of Berlin, we were confronted with the potential futility of it all. The conference resulted in a long list of recommendations, but how many of them can be followed through is uncertain. The inventory of the damage in Syria is as fragmented as the country itself, with some data coming from hurried expeditions into the affected territories, others from drone footage and more still from villagers’ testimonials. Archaeological fragments waiting to be puzzled together again could be blown into debris any day; entire museum collections that have been brought to ‘safety’ in Damascus might find themselves in a warzone once more. There was a strong sense among all those in attendance that nothing could be taken for granted on the ground. The most important thing right now, the consensus seemed to be, is to save what can be saved, document and assess the damage as far as possible (a full report of the UNESCO Palmyra mission will be reported in July in Istanbul) and wait.

Having withstood centuries, Syria’s cultural heritage suddenly appears profoundly fragile. Many measures taken at the moment seem palliative at best. Talking about rebuilding Syria’s heritage is essential, but we are still waiting for the moment when the country’s future can really begin. Nobody knows when, or if, that time will come.

Nausikaä El-Mecky specialises in attacks on art and is a fellow at the Heidelberg School of Education.