By Sydney Palmer
WANT Original Content
As the conflict in Syria escalates, it is easy to lose sight of the cultural significance in this war-torn state. In an open letter to the United Nations, Dr Amr al-Azm, head of the Syrian Heritage Task Force, charged the UN to enforce a ban on the trade of Syrian artifacts. The professor presents the rich, internationally significant history of Syria as a catalyst in the reconciliation of a current humanitarian disaster.
Our shared world heritage in Syria is being looted and turned into weapons of war. Ancient sites dating back to the very earliest moments of human civilization are being crudely dug up and sold to foreign collectors.
The UN Security Council must ban the trade in Syrian antiquities, not only for the sake of protecting world heritage but also to reduce the violence.
The extremist group known as ISIS is one of a number of actors turning antiquities into guns pointed at Syria’s own people. ISIS now runs sophisticated looting operations, working with professional contractors and crews to dig up archeological treasures causing phenomenal damage to the sites. There is little doubt that these artifacts have flooded international markets and found their way into the collections of foreign buyers.
Most countries are lucky if they have one or two UN world heritage sites, Syria has six including the capital Damascus and the ancient city of Aleppo. As the birthplace of the world’s first alphabet and the earliest days of Christianity and Islam, the influence of Syria’s history on modern society is hard to overestimate.
The international community has a responsibility to do more to stop the destruction and it can. The UN Security Council banned the trade in Iraqi artifacts in 2003 and it needs to do the same for Syria now. An international trade ban will help strip these antiquities of much of their financial value and disincentives the looting.
On its own, the ban will not be enough to save Syria’s heritage – but it’s a critical first step. Beyond reducing the market value for these antiquities, the ban will show international solidarity with the activists and archeologists who are risking their lives on the ground to protect this history. Despite the threats of armed groups and aerial bombardment, they enter heritage sites and use techniques dating back to World War II to protect them. They cover ancient mosaics with sandbags and dissemble sundials brick by brick in order to hide them for reconstruction at a later date.
Syria has a resilient sense of identity based on the concept of a shared citizenship around a common history and supported by a long and rich cultural heritage. Once the fighting stops, the people of Syria will need to reconnect with the symbols that unite them across religious and political lines. The country’s ancient past will be key to this – protecting Syria’s history is about safeguarding its future too.
Dr Amr al-Azm
Associate Professor of Middle East History, Shawnee University
Professor at the University of Damascus (1998-2006)
Director of Science and Conservation Laboratories at the General Department of Antiquities and Museums in Syria (1999-2004)
Full list of signatories here: